November 21, 2018

A double standard for Trump on Israel

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a rally with supporters in an arena in Youngstown, Ohio, U.S. July 25, 2017. Photo by Jonathan Ernest/REUTERS.

The double standard that too many Jewish supporters of Donald Trump apply to this president was on sad display last week.

A young Palestinian man entered the home of a Jewish family in the village of Halamish on July 21 and stabbed Yosef, Chaya and Elad Salomon to death. No justification. No mercy. No humanity. 

Our hearts cried out for universal condemnation. Our president needed to set the example of moral leadership. As of this writing, he has said nothing. 

Well, not nothing. Immediately following news of the butchery, President Donald J. Trump did tweet. This is what he said: “It’s very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their President.”

Trump was so focused on the perceived treachery of Republicans who refuse to go along with some half-baked Obamacare repeal that he passed on the opportunity to call out terrorists, fanatics and their enablers.

My reaction to Trump’s bizarre tweet was, What if President Obama had done this?

What if Barack Obama had said nothing about the indescribably awful photos of the Salomon family murder scene? His Jewish detractors would have pilloried him — and rightly so.

The contrast points to something more and more apparent: a double standard applied by the pro-Israel community to Trump and his predecessor.

Three weeks ago, Trump recertified Iran’s compliance with the Iran nuclear deal. I believe this was the right thing to do, but then again, I supported the deal originally.  Trump didn’t. But when he reversed himself, did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fly to Washington and speak to Congress to publicly condemn Trump? Did Trump’s Jewish supporters call him a traitor to Israel and an Iranian puppet? Nope. Double standard.

One week ago, the Trump administration cut a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a Syrian ceasefire that leaves Hezbollah troops close to Israel’s northern border.  Israel vehemently opposed the idea. But Trump sided with Putin. “The Americans completely conceded to the Russians,” a senior Israeli military official told Al-Monitor. “The very names of Iran or Hezbollah do not appear in the agreement, and there is no expression of Israeli concerns at all. Our security needs are completely ignored.”

I’m not sure the ceasefire wasn’t the right move. But I do know what holy hell the pro-Israel right would have raised if Obama had signed that deal. In this case, they said nothing. Double standard.

During the presidential campaign, Trump promised he would move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem  “on Day One.” Jewish and Christian audiences leapt to their feet at Trump’s promise.

Two months ago, Trump declined to move the embassy. The protest from those who applauded him? Barely a word. Double standard.

Keep in mind these all are examples from the past couple of months. Want to go back further? Imagine what the Republican outcry would have been if Obama refused to mention Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day? Or if Obama had said he “doesn’t know anything about” Louis Farrakhan, as candidate Trump said of KKK Grand Nincompoop David Duke.   

A healthy swath of the Jewish community, and the larger Republican crowd, reviled Obama. But time and again they grade Trump on a curve. Obama signed a $38 billion aid deal with Israel, helped fund its Iron Dome program, stood by Israel during the Gaza War and firmly declared anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism — two years before French President Emmanuel Macron did. Did it matter? Nope. Double standard.

With one notable exception — the Zionist Organization of America’s Morton Klein — the president’s Jewish supporters give him a pass on issues, statements and actions they would have slammed Obama for.

Obama could do no right, Trump can do no wrong. Can you even imagine the derision if Obama’s State Department had blamed Israel for Palestinian terror, as Trump’s State Department did in a report released this week?

Here’s what I wonder: Why does Trump get a pass? Maybe United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley buys Trump all the indulgences he will ever need. Maybe Obama haters simply used Israel as a wedge issue to gain Jewish votes when their real concern was other Democratic policies. Or maybe these supporters cut Trump slack because they believe he supports Israel deep down in his kishkas, or guts, and — so they like to say– Obama just didn’t.

If it’s the last reason, then I have one question that Jewish supporters of the president must consider: Does it matter if you have Israel in your kishkas if you are otherwise incompetent, unprepared, uniformed and relentlessly self-concerned?

In July 2014, the bodies of three Israeli teenagers were found murdered by Palestinian terrorists — a horror no less shocking and unjustifiable than the Salomon murders last week. Almost immediately, then-President Barack Obama sent his condolences to the families of the teenagers and condemned the “senseless act of terror against innocent youth.”

It’s not asking too much of a president to respond with humanity to inhuman acts. And it’s not expecting too much of his supporters to call him out when he falls short.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

AIPAC seeking bipartisan spirit in a polarized capital

The crowd at last year’s AIPAC conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

Maintaining Iran sanctions, crushing BDS and ensuring aid to Israel are high on the agenda, of course.

But the overarching message at this year’s conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is, if you want a break from polarization, come join us.

“This is an unprecedented time of political polarization, and we will have a rare bipartisan gathering in Washington,” an official of the lobby told JTA about the March 26-28 confab. “One of the impressive aspects of our speaker program is that we will have the entire bipartisan leadership of Congress.”

That might seem a stretch following two tense years in which AIPAC faced off against the Obama administration – and by extension much of the Democratic congressional delegation – over the Iran nuclear deal.

But check out the roster of conference speakers and you can see the lobby is trying hard.

Among Congress members, for instance, there are the usual suspects, including stalwarts of the U.S.-Israel relationship like Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the minority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Rep. Ed Royce, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Vice President Mike Pence is speaking, and so are the leaders of each party in both chambers.

But also featured is Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a freshman who had the backing of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate who had his request for a satellite feed at last year’s conference turned down. Also present this year and absent last year, for the most part: Democrats who backed the Iran deal.

Among the other speakers are Obama administration architects and defenders of the nuclear deal, which traded sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program.

One striking example is Rob Malley, a National Security Council official who didn’t join President Barack Obama’s team until his second term in part because pro-Israel objections kept him out in the first four years. (Malley, a peace negotiator under President Bill Clinton, had committed the heresy of insisting that both Israelis and Palestinians were to blame for the collapse of talks in 2000.)

If there’s a let-bygones-be-bygones flavor to all this, it results in part from anxieties pervading the Jewish organizational world about polarization in the era of Trump. Jewish groups get their most consequential policy work done lining up backers from both parties.

“We continue to very much believe in the bipartisan model because it is the only way to get things done,” said the official, who like AIPAC officials are wont to do, requested anonymity. “This is the one gathering where D’s and R’s come together for high purpose.”

J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group, demonstrated at its own policy conference last month that it was only too happy to lead the resistance to President Donald Trump, who has appalled the liberal Jewish majority with his broadsides against minorities and his isolationism. J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, explicitly said he was ready to step in now where AIPAC would not.

AIPAC is also under fire from the right. Republican Jews who consider the lobby’s bipartisanship a bane rather than a boon were behind the party platform’s retreat last year from explicit endorsement of the two-state solution. More recently, Trump has also marked such a retreat, at least rhetorically.

The Israeli American Council, principally backed by Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire who in 2007 fell out with AIPAC in part over its embrace of the two-state outcome, has attempted to position itself as the more conservative-friendly Israel lobby. The right-leaning Christians United for Israel is similarly assuming a higher profile on the Hill.

And so, in forging its legislative agenda, AIPAC is doing its best to find items both parties can get behind. There are three areas:

* Iran: Democrats are still resisting legislation that would undo the nuclear deal, but are ready to countenance more narrowly targeted sanctions. AIPAC is helping to craft bills that would target Iran’s missile testing and its transfer of arms to other hostile actors in the region.

* Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions: AIPAC will back a bill modeled on one introduced in the last congressional session by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Ben Cardin, D-Md., that would extend to the BDS movement 1970s laws that made it illegal to participate in the Arab League boycott of Israel.

* Foreign assistance: AIPAC activists will lobby the Hill on the final day of the conference with a request to back assistance to Israel (currently at $3.1 billion a year, set to rise next year to $3.8 billion). Support for such aid is a given, despite deep cuts to diplomatic and foreign aid programs in  Trump’s budget proposal.

Also a given will be the activists’ insistence that aid to Israel should not exist in a vacuum and should be accompanied by a robust continuation of U.S. aid to other countries. With a Trump administration pledged to slashing foreign assistance by a third and wiping out whole programs, AIPAC is returning to a posture unfamiliar since the early 1990s, when it stood up to a central plank of a Republican president.

Notably absent from the agenda is any item that robustly declares support for a two-state outcome. AIPAC officials say the longtime U.S. policy remains very much on their agenda, but the lobby’s apparent soft pedaling of the issue is notable at a time when other mainstream groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, have been assertive in urging the U.S. and Israeli governments to preserve it.

Why didn’t Obama punish Palestinian incitement?

As I reflected on the horrific news from Jerusalem of the latest Palestinian terror attack against Jews, I thought about President Obama’s recent decision to not veto United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which branded Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem—including the Western Wall–as “Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

Let’s accept that the president has the right to punish an ally for not honoring his demands. Israel, in fact, did not honor Obama’s draconian demand nearly eight years ago to freeze every inch of construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. So, it’s perfectly OK to look at this resolution as the consequence of not obeying an important ally.

Obama can talk all day long about his admiration for Israel, but he surely must know that a resolution that turns the Jewish state into an outlaw state, and that makes no distinction between an illegal outpost and the Western Wall, is harmful to Israel and is fodder for Israel’s enemies.

What makes Obama’s action especially nasty and unjust, however, is that he could never bring himself to similarly punish Palestinian terrorism and incitement to violence.

Punish Jews for building too many homes in disputed territory? Absolutely. Punish Palestinians for inciting their people to murder Jews? Absolutely not.

Palestinian incitement is not just the glorifying of terrorism and teaching of Jew-hatred throughout Palestinian society—we’ve almost become used to that. A more insidious strain of incitement is the denial of any Jewish connection to Jerusalem, which is dramatized in violent statements such as these: “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure. Every martyr will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God.”

Those are not the words of a bloodthirsty terrorist from Hamas or Hezbollah– they are those of the “moderate” Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Evidently, for our peace “partner” Abbas, murdering Jews in Jerusalem is a big mitzvah.

Does Abbas shake in his boots when he encourages such murder against Jews? Is he afraid that Obama will punish him? Of course not. Yes, Obama has uttered the obligatory statements against Palestinian terrorism and Palestinian incitement. But real consequences to put teeth behind the condemnations? That’s reserved for Israel.

Obama easily could have threatened to punish Palestinian leaders if they did not dismantle their infrastructure of Jew-hatred. He could have pushed for sanctions against Palestinian incitement both in the Security Council and the U.S. Congress. He could have introduced a U.N. resolution that reaffirmed the Jewish people’s deep and ancient connection to Jerusalem and exposed Palestinian lies. He did none of that.

Instead, he came after Israel, first with an extreme demand that characterized “settlements” as anything from an illegal outpost to the Western Wall, and, second, by allowing a Security Council resolution that officially enshrined Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem as “Occupied Palestinian territory.”

Now, ask yourself: If you’re a Jew-hating Palestinian who hears that the leader of the free world believes the Jewish Quarter belongs to Palestinians, wouldn’t you be encouraged to attack Jews in those areas, especially if your own leader has promised you a special place in paradise for dropping Jewish blood in the holy city?

Of course Obama never meant to encourage violence against Jews in “occupied” Jerusalem. Still, it’s hard to argue that the resolution he allowed to pass won’t make such violence more likely.

Obama’s great sin is not that he gave Israel a hard time, but that he failed to do the same with the Palestinians. When he had a chance to make his defining statement on the conflict, he didn’t demand that Palestinians accept Israel’s offer to negotiate without preconditions, nor did he punish Palestinian leaders for promoting Jew-hatred and inciting their people by denying any Jewish connection to Jerusalem.

No, when he came to his moment of truth at the end of his term, Obama chose to follow Israel’s enemies at the United Nations and punish the Jewish state.

By doing so, he will only end up punishing himself. Israel will survive Obama’s betrayal at the U.N. just as it has survived for so long in the world’s most hostile neighborhood.

It is Obama’s legacy with the pro-Israel community that may not survive. When you give Israel’s enemies more justification to attack Jews, you shouldn’t be surprised if many of those Jews end up turning against you.

In his final State of the Union, Obama pleads for multilateralism

President Barack Obama in his final State of the Union address called on the United States to sustain a foreign policy that emphasized multilateralism after his presidency ends.

Obama devoted a significant chunk of his speech Tuesday night to defending his insistence throughout his presidency on building alliances, although he said he has been ready to go it alone when necessary.

“The third big question we have to answer is how to keep America safe and strong without either isolating ourselves or trying to nation-build everywhere there’s a problem,” Obama said, having outlined four major challenges for his final year in office and the years beyond: addressing poverty, using technology to advance cures for disease and mitigate climate change, keeping America safe and tamping down political polarization at home.

He cited the Iraq War launched under his predecessor George W. Bush as an example of a policy that weakens the United States.

We “can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis,” Obama said. “That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq  —  and we should have learned it by now.”

Instead, Obama said, he favors a foreign policy that “says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.”

He cited as an example last year’s sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal between Iran and six major powers. Obama engaged in a bitter battle with Republicans and Israel’s government until he succeeded in keeping Congress from killing the deal.

“That’s why we built a global coalition, with sanctions and principled diplomacy, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran,” the president said. “As we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile and the world has avoided another war.”

Obama did not mention the 10 American sailors captured Tuesday by the Iranian Navy after two small U.S. naval vessels entered Iranian waters. Critics of the nuclear deal say that while Iran is complying with its narrow strictures, it is also expanding its influence and mischief-making in the region.

“The president touted his nuclear deal with Tehran, yet what the President didn’t say is that, since the deal, we have seen an increasingly bellicose regime flouting the international community, daring us to take action against its illicit behavior and then threatening to walk away from the nuclear deal if we do respond,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the House Middle East subcommittee, said in a statement.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, touted as a contender for the Republican vice presidential spot, delivered her party’s response and lambasted Obama’s Iran policy.

“We would make agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran and not the other way around,” she said.

Obama also discounted fears that the Islamic State terrorist group, controlling large swaths of Syria and Iraq, posed an existential threat to the United States.

“Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped,” he said. “But they do not threaten our national existence. That’s the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.”

Obama called on Congress to authorize the use of force against the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL, but said he would continue to target the group with airstrikes.

He called on Americans not to generalize about Muslims, alluding to calls by Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump to ban them from entering the United States.

“When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer,” he said. “That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. It betrays who we are as a country.”

Haley, who has attacked Trump’s rhetoric, also called for tamping down corrosive rhetoric.

“It can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices — we must resist that temptation,” she said. “There is a tendency to falsely equate noise with results.”

Democrats in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, where Obama delivered the address, stood in applause at the call not to stigmatize Muslims, while Republicans remained seated.

At least 20 Democrats invited Muslims as guests to the speech, CNN reported. Among the Democrats were Jewish lawmakers Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

Also present was former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Jewish Democrat from Arizona who was shot in an assassination attempt in 2011. Giffords was at Obama’s side earlier this month when the president introduced executive actions that would toughen existing background checks for gun purchasers.

Obama’s Iran Framework – Dangerous to U.S., Israel & Mideast

The deal signed between the P5+1 and Iran last week over Iran’s nuclear weapons program represents a defeat for the cause of stopping Iran becoming a nuclear power, for heading off a Mideast nuclear arms race, for forestalling existential threats to Israel, even threats to America – not to mention that it will dramatically increase Iranian funding for terrorism.
 
The deal doesn’t dismantle Iran’s centrifuges or its nuclear facilities; doesn’t terminate Iran’s R&D on centrifuges and missiles, doesn’t provide for unimpeded inspections; doesn’t require Iranian disclosure of its weaponization program; doesn’t require the removal of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium; and doesn’t allow inspections of military installations, like Parchin, where many experts believe nuclear R&D is in progress.
 
To the contrary, Iran will be able to continue enrichment with 5,060 centrifuges for the next decade, an active infrastructure that can raise enrichment to weaponization levels in a matter of weeks. 
 
Even Barack Obama has conceded the deal’s likely result by describing it as a “relevant fear … that in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero,” allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
 
Worse, even if this deal stopped Iran going nuclear, Iran will receive tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief to increase funding to terrorist groups like Hamas, Hizballah and Syria’s Assad regime. 
 
Moreover:
 
  • President Obama says the Arak plutonium facility – something only required of a nuclear weapons program – will be re-purposed. But continued construction of facility components off-site is still not outlawed. Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif has stated that Iran has agreed only to Arak being “modernized.”
  • In December 2013, President Obama said, correctly, that the Iranian underground nuclear facility at Fordow was unnecessary to any genuinely peaceful Iranian nuclear energy program. Yet he has now acquiesced in Iran’s refusal to close it and it will keep its 500 Fordow centrifuges spinning – centrifuges which can be quicklyrecalibrated for uranium enrichment. 
  • President Obama’s claims that the deal will give us access “to the entire supply chain supports Iran’s nuclear program.” How can that be, when the deal doesn’t address military installations like Parchin?
  • President Obama claims the inspections regime is “robust” and enables “unprecedented verification.” But it does neither, while Iran says inspections are “voluntary” and “temporary.” Moreover, if during 1990–2003, the UN Security Council couldn’t enforce an genuinely intrusive regime of unfettered inspections, anywhere, anytime, without prior notice, backed by a Security Council-sanctioned threatened and sometimes actual use of force in the case of Saddam’s Iraq, what confidence can we have that it will be able to do so with Iran, which is not subject to any such apparatus of inspections and force? 
  • President Obama claims that “If Iran cheats, the world will know.” But this is unlikely. Without unfettered inspections, it can cheat free from any likelihood of discovery, utilizing new, improved centrifuges in secret facilities. Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the IAEA, has observed that Russia’s centrifuge program “went for years without detection despite tremendous intelligence efforts” – as did those of Iraq, North Korea, Syria and others. Even when detected, violations take more than the 12-month break-out period to be established and international action orchestrated to deal with them.
  • In any case, knowing is different from acting and what President Obama didn’t say is that the responsibility to declare a violation will rest with the UN  Security Council. As we know from bitter experience dealing with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Security Council is hostage to a single veto – for example, that of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
  • For the same reason, President Obama claim that sanctions to be “snapped back into place” in the event of Iranian violations is absurd. Suspended sanctions can seldom be restored, especially if Security Council permanent members have other ideas. Even if, with hard work and good luck, certain sanctions are reinstated, it would take many months for this to occur and at least a year for them to take their toll on Tehran – more than the 12 months’ proposed break-out time.
  • Iran’s Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program, whose only purpose is to carry nuclear warheads and would give Iran the capacity to strike the U.S., is no part of the deal.
 
Accordingly, this looks like a replay of the disastrous sequence of negotiations and international concessions with North Korea, which resulted in it becoming a nuclear power. Replaying such  negotiations, which would enable Iran to continue its internal repression and external aggression, its murder of journalists and dissidents, it funding of global terror, its efforts to eliminate Israel, do not represent an effort to stop Iran. They represent an effort to reach an agreement at any cost, including capitulation to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Indeed, Obama’s opposition to a Senate vote on this agreement proves that it will be a dangerous agreement.
 
Morton A. Klein is National President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Dr. Daniel Mandel is Director of the ZOA’ s Center for Middle East Policy and author of H.V. Evatt & the Creation of Israel (Routledge, London, 2004).
 

Obama extends sanctions on Iran while noting its improved behavior

President Barack Obama noted improved Iranian behavior while nuclear talks are underway, but said a yearlong extension of sanctions is still merited.

On Wednesday, Obama extended the status of national emergency for Iran, which perpetuates existing sanctions on the regime for a year.

Such extensions have been routine since 1995, when President Bill Clinton first imposed nuclear-related sanctions. But Obama spoke of progress made in the talks between Iran and the major powers.

“This marks the first time in a decade that Iran has agreed to take, and has taken, specific actions that stop the advance and roll back key elements of its nuclear program,” he said, adding that the United States was participating in the temporary relief of some sanctions as part of the agreement governing the talks.

“Nevertheless, certain actions and policies of the Government of Iran are contrary to the interests of the United States in the region and continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States. For these reasons, I have determined that it is necessary to continue the national emergency declared with respect to Iran and to maintain in force comprehensive sanctions.”

The deadline for an outline of an agreement is March 24 and for a final agreement July 1. Obama could suspend some sanctions with an agreement in place, but would need congressional approval to permanently repeal sanctions.

Full text of the ‘U.S.-Israel Relationship Under President Obama’ White House brief

Included is the full release published by the White House ahead of Netanyahu's scheduled speech before Congress. Highlights as in the original.

5 Things You Need to Know About the U.S.-Israel Relationship Under President Obama

Here are the five key facts you need to know about the U.S.-Israel relationship under President Obama:

1. A strong defender: President Obama has strengthened Israel's defense in concrete and unprecedented ways:

Israel remains the leading recipient of U.S. foreign military financing (FMF), receiving over $20.5 billion since 2009.

The United States in Fiscal Year 2014 provided Israel with more security assistance funding than ever before. In Fiscal Year 2016, which marks the eighth year of a 10-year, $30 billion Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Israel, we have asked Congress for $3.1 billion in FMF funds for Israel.

The President has provided $2.9 billion in funding for missile defense programs and systems. Since 2011, the United States has provided Israel with over $1.3 billion for the Iron Dome system alone, including $225 million in short-fuse funding last summer.

The U.S. and Israel regularly conduct joint exercises to improve our military capabilities and strengthen our bilateral security.

2. An international ally: Under President Obama, the U.S. has led global efforts to defend Israel's legitimacy on the world stage:

Last year, the U.S. opposed 18 resolutions in the UN General Assembly that were biased against Israel.

On five occasions last year, the U.S. cast the only “no” vote against unfair anti-Israel measures in the UN’s Human Rights Council.

The U.S. worked with Israel and the European Union to organize the first UN General Assembly session on anti-Semitism in UN history, held in January 2015.

3. A proponent of peace: The President has strongly supported Israel in its quest for peace with its neighbors:

President Obama has repeatedly stood up for a two-state solution that ensures the peace and security of Israelis and Palestinians.

Under the President’s direction, Secretary Kerry initiated an intensive, collaborative effort to facilitate negotiations for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

The President prioritized Israel’s security by asking one of our foremost military experts to help develop security arrangements that ensure a two-state solution leaves Israelis more secure, not less.

4. An economic partner: Under President Obama, the U.S. has a strong and robust commercial relationship with Israel:

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the United States-Israel Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which was the first FTA entered into by the United States.

U.S. goods exports to Israel in 2014 were $15.1 billion, up 9.6% ($1.3 billion) from 2013, and up 64% from 2004. U.S. exports to Israel are up 587% from 1984 (Pre-FTA).

U.S. goods imports from Israel were $23.1 billion in 2014, a 1.1% increase ($242 million) from 2013, and up 58% from 2004. U.S. imports from Israel are up 1,203% from 1984.

The U.S. continues to invest in the BIRD Foundation, a U.S.-Israeli partnership between private sectors to expand private high tech industries. Since its founding in 1977, the $295 million in grants have been awarded to 800 partnerships, generating over $10 billion in product sales.

​5. A support system for refugees and migrants: Under President Obama, the U.S. has invested millions in helping Israeli immigrants:

In the last 6 years, U.S. humanitarian assistance to refugees and migrants travelling to Israel totaled $140 million. This funding is used to help transport eligible migrants to Israel, transitional shelter, intensive Hebrew-language programs that focus on newly-arriving immigrants, or youth programming in Israel.

Since Israel’s founding, the U.S. has provided Israel with more than $120 billion in bilateral assistance and, under President Obama’s leadership, the U.S. will continue to be Israel’s strongest ally and staunchest supporter in its pursuit of peace and security in the Middle East.

Freed prisoner Alan Gross loves Judaism

Alan Gross was freed from a Cuban prison on Wednesday after five years, much of that time in isolation. His release was part of a prisoner exchange deal between Cuba and the United States that President Barack Obama announced marks the start of improved relations between the two longtime enemy countries. Gross' first public statement was to say to America, “Chag Sameach,” as he began a televised press conference from his attorney's Washington, D.C. offices on the first day of Chanukah.

Gross, 65, included numerous Jewish references in his speech to reporters. His  wife, Judy, who had worked tirelessly for his release, stood at his side. Gross was missing several teeth.

He referred to his attorney, Scott Gilbert, who reportedly helped procure his freedom, as his “personal Moses” and he gave a shout-out to his “Shabbat group” as he thanked everybody who has helped him during his captivity.

Gross traveled to Cuba in 2009 while working as a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development. His assignment was to set up uncensored, albeit illegal, internet connections for Cuban Jews. He was arrested nine days into his trip and charged with espionage.

More on Alan Gross' time in Cuba here.

Clip of press conference

In lame-duck period, Obama administration retreats from peace endeavors

Does the prospect of President Obama’s lame-duck period, coupled with the multiple foreign crises he is facing, diminish his quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace?

Little on the immediate diplomatic horizon signals an intensive U.S. interest in advancing the peace process.

There have been no announcements of high-level meetings between Obama and the Palestinian and Israeli leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, which begins this year on Sept. 16. There have been no leaks, as there have been in the past, that Obama would be making any major statements on the peace process at the G.A.

John Kerry, the peripatetic U.S. secretary of state who lost count of his visits to the region until the collapse in April of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, has no plans to return anytime soon.

Rather, Kerry and Obama are focused on an expanding range of issues, including escalations in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, pushing back against Islamist extremists throughout the Middle East and a looming deadline in nuclear talks with Iran.

Additionally, Obama administration relations with both the Israelis and Palestinians have soured since the collapse of the peace talks, which the Americans blamed on both sides — the Palestinians for resisting a deadline extension, Israel for expanding settlement activity. Tensions were exacerbated over civilian casualties among Palestinians during Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip over the summer.

The disagreements don’t seem to have gone away, despite a cease-fire that appears to be firmly in place. On Tuesday, the Obama administration formally called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to reverse its seizure of West Bank land for settlement building, saying it was counterproductive to peace efforts. While U.S. administrations have expressed concern about settlement activity in the past, direct calls for Israel’s government to reverse a decision are rare.

Alan Solow, a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a major fundraiser for Obama’s election campaigns, said it doesn’t make sense to pursue a peace that the sides are not ready to embrace.

“They recognize they want to spend their time productively,” Solow, a confidant of the administration, told JTA in an interview on Tuesday. “Where they sense a further investment of time will not yield progress, there are plenty of other problems they can turn to that may yield progress.”

Statements from officials suggest that the Obama administration is more interested in managing rather than resolving the conflict.

Jen Psaki’s, Kerry’s spokeswoman, said Tuesday that a meeting Kerry planned to have in Washington the next day with Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian peace negotiator, would focus on the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. She did not mention the peace process.

“They’ll talk about a range of issues, there’s an ongoing cease-fire discussion and a range of longer-term issues,” she said.

Asked by a reporter about Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ latest reported proposal for a three-year withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank based on U.N. resolutions, Psaki would say only that the United States did not see the proposal as “productive.”

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator under Republican and Democratic presidents, said it never made sense for the Obama administration to focus as intently as it did in its second term on an Israeli-Palestinian deal because the sides were not ready for one.

“Transformative change requires two things — a crisis or an opportunity so profound that it empowers two leaders to go beyond where they’ve been before,” said Miller, a vice president of the Wilson Center who is about to release a book on the diminished power of the modern American presidency, “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.”

“That is what would be required in the less than thousand days [left] of Obama’s presidency,” he said. “It would have to be a set of circumstances that are regionally based and raised the costs and incentives for both Abbas and Netanyahu. This is the critical piece, the ownership on the part of Bibi and Abbas.”

Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a foreign policy think tank that favors intervention, counseled continued U.S. engagement should the parties decide they seriously want to discuss peace. But Schanzer said it was about time for the Obama administration to let go of its ambitions for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Imagine if we had spent the same time and energy fighting ISIS over the last 10 months as we had investing in the peace process,” he said, referring to the jihadist group in Iraq and Syria that the Obama administration has only in recent weeks directly engaged.

Amid uncertainty of an open-ended war, U.S.-Israel tensions rise

The dramatic developments in the war between Hamas and Israel have been accompanied by sharp ups and downs in U.S.-Israel relations.

On Monday, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, made nice with the U.S. national security adviser, Susan Rice, before an audience of anxious U.S. Jewish leaders. But right before, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bluntly vowed to continue Israel’s military campaign against Hamas, notwithstanding President Obama’s unequivocal demand for a cease-fire.

And within a day of Israeli and American pledges not to afflict one another with damaging leaks, Israeli television was running the transcript of what it said was a fraught Obama-Netanyahu telephone conversation.

The tumult in U.S.-Israel ties reflects the confusing and open-ended nature of the current war between Israel and Hamas, insiders and experts suggest.

“The [Israeli] government is confused, the [Israeli] public is confused, and I’m not sure the [Obama] administration is giving absolutely clear signals,” said Peter Medding, a political science professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem whose specialty is Israel-U.S. relations. “That’s not a good situation.”

In the first weeks of the war, Netanyahu and Obama seemed to be on the same page, with both leaders angling for cease-fires and putting the blame squarely on Hamas.

But as the war has dragged on, the leaders have been pulled in opposite directions. Obama has been concerned with the rapid growth of civilian casualties while Netanyahu has been concerned with the vast network of Hamas-built tunnels running under the Gaza-Israel border.

“We will not complete the mission, we will not complete the operation, without neutralizing the tunnels, the sole purpose of which is the destruction of our civilians and the killing of our children,” Netanyahu said at a news conference Monday, a day after Obama had called for an “immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire.”

Within an hour of Netanyahu’s news conference, the national Jewish groups held a pro-Israel rally at the National Press Club. The star guests were Rice, who is one of Obama’s closest confidantes, and Dermer, the Israeli ambassador.

They seemed to be on the same page.

“Israel will continue to destroy the tunnels we have found, regardless of whether there is a cease-fire or not, and I know the Obama administration understands and supports that,” Dermer said.

“Israel has the same, unequivocal right to self-defense as every other nation,” Rice said. “No nation can accept terrorists tunneling into its territory or rockets crashing down on its people.”

It was a change from only a few days earlier, when Israel’s Security Cabinet rejected what was being widely referred to as a cease-fire proposal from Secretary of State John Kerry (the Americans denied that it was a formal proposal). The document’s details were leaked, and Kerry was maligned in Israeli press accounts.

U.S. officials responded publicly with anger at the treatment of Kerry.

During his appearance on Monday, Dermer agreed that Kerry had been unfairly maligned.

Officials in both governments have expressed dismay with how the other side seems to misunderstand its postures so deeply.

A U.S. official told JTA that the Israeli Cabinet misunderstood the document Kerry had forwarded. It was an update of an existing Egyptian cease-fire proposal with notes from Turkey and Qatar, serving as Hamas’ interlocutors, and it was not a final version, the official said.

“The reaction was overwrought considering it was procedural,” the official said of the proposal Kerry had sent.

Israel’s Security Cabinet, understanding the document to be final, put it to a vote, and it was defeated 8-0. Then the document was leaked to Israeli news outlets. Israeli officials, quoted anonymously, said it amounted to a “terrorist attack” and said Kerry was acting on behalf of Hamas.

The Israelis were appalled by a proposal to funnel funds to employees affiliated with Hamas.

By Tuesday morning, although it was clear from Netanyahu’s remarks the day before that there still were differences over a cease-fire, the mutual recriminations seemed to have been laid to rest by the joint Rice-Dermer appearance.

Then, Tuesday evening, Israel’s Channel One quoted a “senior American source” who painted a very negative portrait of Obama. The source said that the phone conversation between Obama and Netanyahu on Sunday was “tense” and that Obama was “condescending” and “hostile” to Netanyahu, and that the president behaved like the “law professor he once was,” showing “impatience and a lack of understanding of Israel’s problems.”

The source provided a purported transcript of the Obama-Netanyahu conversation. The transcript has Obama demanding that Israel adhere to a cease-fire and arguing with Netanyahu over the role of Qatar and Turkey as interlocutors. According to the transcript, Netanyahu says he does not trust those countries because of their closeness to Hamas, but Obama counters that Israel is not in a position to pick and choose mediators.

Within minutes of the broadcast, Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Caitlin Hayden, the spokeswoman for Rice, and Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, were expressing alarm.

“We have seen reports of an alleged POTUS-Netanyahu transcript; neither reports nor alleged transcript bear any resemblance to reality, “ Hayden on the NSC’s official Twitter account, using the acronym for the President Of The United States. “Shocking and disappointing someone would sink to misrepresenting a private conversation between POTUS and PM in fabrications to Israeli press.”

Rhodes and Netanyahu’s office both echoed Hayden’s insistence that the transcript was false.

Experts on U.S.-Israel relations said the fast-changing pace of the war inevitably was going to lead to misunderstandings and mischaracterizations, exacerbated by the parlous relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.

“Seeing the United States negotiating” with Hamas’ allies “while the war is going on and suffering casualties — once you see this it brings out very harsh reactions,” said Dan Arbell, a former second in command at the Israeli Embassy in Washington who is now a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

3 senators urge Obama to let Israel neutralize Hamas ahead of cease-fire

Three senators urged President Obama to ensure that Israel removes Hamas’ military threat before a cease-fire is in place.

“The threats posed by Hamas rockets and tunnels whose only purpose is to kill and kidnap Israelis are intolerable, and Israel must be allowed to take any actions necessary to remove those threats,” Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Lindsey Graham (R- S. C.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote in a letter Wednesday. “Any effort to broker a cease-fire agreement that does not eliminate those threats cannot be sustained in the long run and will leave Israel vulnerable to future attacks.”

While expressing sympathy for the death of both Palestinian and Israeli civilians, the senators wrote that Hamas’ “primary goal is to destroy Israel. We must do everything possible to ensure they do not succeed.”

Cardin, along with Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), also wrote to Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, on Wednesday to express “our strong objections” to his calling Israel’s operations in Gaza an “atrocious action.”

“We respectfully request that your future comments recognize the fact that the ‘atrocious action’ is the deliberate terrorist attack on civilians — not the measured response of a nation-state trying to defend its citizens,” the Cardin and Ayotte wrote.

They said Ban’s pronouncement “lends a degree of perceived legitimacy that terrorist organizations do not deserve” and also “undercuts the legitimate right of the nation-states to defend their citizens.”

In a third letter concerning the war between Israel and Hamas, Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.) wrote to Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, to condemn Wednesday’s decision by the U.N. Human Rights Council to establish a commission of inquiry focusing mostly on Israel’s actions in Gaza without addressing allegations that Hamas hides its weapons and fighters among civilians.

“Hamas’ continued use of civilians as human shields is a direct violation of international law,” the Congress members wrote in a two-page letter that also condemned Hamas’ use of schools, hospitals and mosques “as covers for their rocket launchers and weapons caches.”

Separately, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), a physician, called on Israel not to target medical facilities.

“I am distressed by reports that Israel has attacked hospitals, ambulances and medical personnel in its on-going military offensive in the Gaza Strip,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

“Palestinian health and emergency workers are unable to reach the dead and wounded in many parts of Gaza due to the danger of being attacked themselves,” McDermott said. “I call on America’s long-time friend and ally Israel to abide by international humanitarian law and cease all attacks against health facilities and workers.”

 

Michele Bachmann: Jewish groups sold out Israel for Obama

Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) said American Jewish organizations are selling out on Israel in favor of the Obama administration.

Bachmann made the accusation this week during a telephone interview with Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council and host of the online radio show that is featured on the conservative Christian group’s website.

“What has been shocking has been seeing and observing Jewish organizations who, it appears, have made it their priority to support the political priority and the political ambitions of the president over the best interests of Israel. They sold out Israel,” Bachmann said.

She said this in reference to a Feb. 27 letter by major Democratic donors, many of them Jewish, to party congressional leaders urging them not to advance new Iran sanctions legislation. “This is clearly against Israel’s best interest,” she said.

President  Obama in January said he would veto legislation introduced in the Senate the previous month, that threatened to torpedo international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has criticized the interim agreement reached in November between six world powers including the United States and Iran as “a bad deal.”

The so-called P5+1 agreement freezes some aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. Israel under Netanyahu is demanding total dismantlement of sites that are suspected as being connected to Iran’s presumed nuclear weapons program as a precondition for sanctions relief.

Earlier in the interview, Bachmann said that Obama “was helped enormously by the Jewish community. He made all sorts of promises in 2008 to the Jewish community through [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]. He did it again in 2012 when he was running to be re-elected. He made promises that he would have Israel’s back, and in return the Jewish community gave him their votes.”

“The Jewish community gave him their votes, their support, their financial support and as recently as last week, 48 Jewish donors who are big contributors to the president wrote a letter to the Democrat [sic] senators in the U.S. Senate to tell them to not advance sanctions against Iran.”

Report: Abbas to receive White House invite

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could be invited for a visit to the White House in the near future, the P.A.’s chief negotiator reportedly told a local radio station.

Saeb Erekat told the Voice of Palestine radio, however, that a date has not been set for an Abbas visit, Israel Radio reported.

Erekat was interviewed from Moscow, where he discussed the current U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

According to Israel Radio, he told the Voice of Palestine that American negotiators were still presenting ideas to both sides and that it was too soon to decide whether the talks are a success or a failure.

President Obama will meet with Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on March 3 with the Israeli prime minister in Washington that week to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference. The leaders are expected to discuss the peace negotiations and Iran.

 

Senate approves Jack Lew as Treasury Secretary

With a strong bipartisan majority, the U.S. Senate confirmed Jack Lew, President Obama's nominee to be Treasury Secretary.

Lew, formerly Obama's chief of staff, was confirmed late Wednesday in a 71-26 vote, with 20 Republicans voting for him.

Lew, an observant Jew from New York, also has served twice — under Presidents Clinton and Obama — as chief of the Office of Management and Budget and, under Obama, as a deputy secretary of state.

Lew faced questions over a $685,000 severance payment he got when he resigned as executive vice president of New York University, and also met some resistance from Republicans who said Lew, as OMB chief, was too closely identified with the current impasse over passing a budget.

Nonetheless, his solid majority was in contrast to Chuck Hagel, Obama's Defense Secretary nominee, who garnered the support of just four Republicans and was approved earlier in the week by a majority of 58.

Why no opposition to Hagel, arms to Egypt?

Israel is facing serious challenges on two new fronts. 

President Barack Obama has nominated Israel-basher Chuck Hagel for defense secretary and sent fighter jets to Mohamed Morsi’s Israel-hating Egyptian regime.

Where are America’s major Jewish organizations? Silent, voicing no opposition.

Hagel’s nomination should have galvanized Jewish organizations in opposition, regardless of political orientation. 

Until his nomination, no major pro-Israel group could be found to have disagreed with what we have just said. Quite the contrary.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC), by its own description, had “raised concerns.” 

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abraham Foxman had said that Hagel’s record relating to Israel was “at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling,” and that his anti-Israel lobby comments “border on anti-Semitism.” 

In 2007, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) had issued a detailed account of Hagel’s worrying voting record on Israel and the Middle East, and in 2009 its executive director, Ira Forman, indicated “that his group would oppose Hagel’s appointment to any position that had influence over U.S.-Israel relations.”

Yet, following Hagel’s nomination, virtually all Jewish groups — except the Zionist Organization of America — refused to oppose Hagel. Even Orthodox Jewish groups, like the Orthodox Union, were silent. 

AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann asserted that “AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations.” 

AJC Executive Director David Harris explained that, although still “concerned,” AJC is “not in the opposition camp.” 

ADL’s Foxman averred, “I respect the president’s prerogative” — something no one called into question and which in no way reduces the corresponding prerogative of the Senate to decline confirmation. 

NJDC issued a statement saying, “We trust that when confirmed … Hagel will follow the president’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel.” 

In contrast, Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel was strongly opposing Hagel’s nomination before it was even announced. It has dispatched a delegation to Washington to lobby senators against confirmation.

In short, a Christian group fights for Israel while almost all Jewish groups refuse to do so.

Why? 

ADL and NJDC believe that there is no need to fight Hagel because “we expect the president to make clear that his long-held views will continue as American policy” (ADL) and because “setting policy starts and stops with the president” (NJDC).

Really? Cabinet members do influence the president, perhaps especially on momentous and difficult decisions. Recently, former Secretary of State Colin Powell was revealed to have complained with regard to the George W. Bush administration that “the Defense Department had too much power in shaping foreign policy.” And could it really be said that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had little or no influence on the policy of President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis? Or upon President Lyndon Johnson during the conduct of the Vietnam War? The idea is absurd.

The least these Jewish groups, which once opposed Hagel, can offer their members is a clear explanation as to why they’ve changed positions. 

Where, too, are Jewish organizations when it comes to the United States sending to Morsi’s vicious Egyptian regime 16 F-16 fighter jets and 200 Abrams tanks that were negotiated in 2010 with the Mubarak regime? Its replacement by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed regime should have prompted a rethink.

Morsi, a founding member of the Brotherhood’s Committee to Fight the Zionist Project, was recently found to have called in 2010 for an economic boycott of the United States, for nurturing “our children and grandchildren on hatred toward those Zionists and Jews,” and to have referred to Israelis as “bloodsuckers, warmongers … the descendants of apes and pigs.” 

In 2010, the Brotherhood leader, Muhammad Badie, advocated jihad, a state based on Islamic law, and spoke optimistically about the United States heading for a collapse. His second-in-command, Rashad al-Bayoumi, declared last year that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty “isn’t binding at all … On no condition will we recognize Israel. It is an enemy entity.” Yet Obama sends Cairo dangerous arms regardless — and virtually all Jewish groups remain silent. When Sen. Rand Paul proposed an amendment halting the Egyptian arms sale, AIPAC lobbied against and helped defeat it.

Not so many years ago, Jewish organizations held huge rallies for Soviet Jews. AIPAC and others campaigned against the sale of AWAC planes to Saudi Arabia. American Jewish organizations should have been fighting relentlessly to stop Hagel and the Egyptian arms package. 

When was the last time it was good for Jews to be the sha shtil Jews — the Jews of silence?


Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Irwin Hochberg is former board chairman of the UJA-Federation of New York, former national campaign chair of Israel Bonds and vice chairman of ZOA.

Obama in second inaugural speaks of a united America, U.S. involvement abroad

President Obama in his second inaugural address spoke of U.S. involvement throughout the world and Americans working together at home.

Obama was sworn in publicly for his second term at 11:50 a.m. Monday by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Some 800,000 people reportedly thronged the area to witness the inauguration.

“America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation,” he said. “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”

In his address, Obama focused on the promise of American democracy and all Americans working for the common good. He spoke of the allegiance to the Constitution and its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time,” he said. “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”

The president alluded to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the day set aside in the United States to commemorate the slain human rights activist.

Obama said the U.S. “must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher.”

He called for a response to the threat of climate change, and praised the men and women who serve in the U.S. armed services. Obama also spoke of equality for women in the workplace and for gays.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the inaugural ceremonies chairman, opened the ceremony and introduced the participants.

Obama was sworn in officially on Sunday, the inauguration day mandated by the Constitution, in a private ceremony.

‘Israelis on Obama’ video: President ‘a mensch’ on Israel [UPDATE]

“President Obama is doing, in regards to our security, more than anything I can remember, ” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says at the start of a new video created by The Jewish Council for Education & Research (JCER), a pro-Obama Super PAC. Barak’s comment is taken from a July 2012 CNN interview, and is just one of many interviews with Israelis in JCER’s new two-minute Web video aimed at garnering the pro-Israel vote (“Israelis on Obama“).

Promoting Obama as “a mensch” on Israel, the message is directed at “a small subset” of undecided Jewish voters for whom Israel policy might make a difference, according to Mik Moore, co-founder of JCER.

“I have never seen such measures of economic pressure taken against Iran as I see under President Obama’s Administration,” says Avinoam Armoni, CEO of Tel Aviv’s Bet Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People, says in the video. “I have faith that the United States and President Obama are true to their word.”

JCER is best known to date for producing expletive-filled web videos featuring actors Sarah Silverman and Samuel L. Jackson, but this new straight-faced video and Web Site, ObamaonIsrael.org, feature earnest testimonies from Israeli citizens praising Obama’s policies.

Israelis in the video also hail Obama’s funding of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, his administration’s sharing military intelligence with the Israeli intelligence services and the two countries’ staging of joint military exercises.

JCER, whose entire base of support adds up to less than $300,000, typically promotes its videos virally on the Web, but in this case, the message will also be delivered as a 30-second TV advertisement set to air in Florida on cable news channels next week.

The hope, Moore said, is to challenge the barrage of Web videos and advertisements on multiple platforms created by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) claiming Obama is unfriendly to Israel.

“The Jewish vote is not going to turn on this issue,” Moore said in an interview on Oct. 18, noting that most Jews vote Democratic and will likely vote for Obama again in 2012.

“We want [the undecided voters] to make that decision with the facts about the President’s record on Israel,” Moore said.

The idea for the video came from Susan Silverman, a reform Rabbi who lives in Jerusalem and is the sister of comedian-activist Sarah Silverman. “I was sick and tired of the lies and misrepresentations spread by Republicans about Barack Obama’s record on Israel,” Silverman told the Journal in a telephone interview from Israel on Oct. 18.  

Silverman said she finds that the Israelis and American Jews who are fearful of Obama don’t have any particular evidence to back up their claims.

“One right-wing guy said to me, ‘Sure, he hasn’t’ done anything yet, but that’s because he’s saving it for his second term,’” Silverman said. “I feel like it’s the same stuff that fuels the ‘birther’ movement.”

Silverman spent last August filming many hours of interviews with Israelis in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Herzliya, but found one of the most compelling testimonies from a woman named Ruthie in Ofakim, a town near the Gaza border.

Ruthie, a childcare worker with three children and a fourth on the way, took issue with Romney’s assertion that, when it comes to Israe,l he would “do the opposite” of what Obama has done in his first term.

“‘Does he think that’s funny? Does he think it’s OK to be flippant?’” Silverman said, recalling Ruthie’s reaction. “‘Barack Obama has made us safer. I would like [Romney] to come with me to the bomb shelter with my children and see how terrified they are. Let him come with us, and then see how he flippant he can be.’”

The video arrives at a moment when Silverman’s sister, Sarah Silverman, has come under fire from some Jewish observers for her provocative and often off-color commentary in earlier JCER videos. In one, Silverman crudely propositions Republican Jewish mega-donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has pledged to give $100 million in support of the Romney campaign this year, and has already given tens of millions of dollars to Republican candidates during this election cycle. Adelson is also a significant supporter of the RJC’s $6.5 million effort to attack Obama and his policies.

Story continues after the jump.

In an open letter to Silverman published in the Brooklyn-based Jewish Press this week, Orthodox Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt assailed Silverman for “making public that which is private,” urging her to marry and raise children. Writing in Tablet, Liel Leibovitz echoed part of Rosenblatt’s message, saying that Obama “could have asked for no worse endorsement than Silverman’s.”

Moore called the criticism of Silverman “a manufactured controversy, a media stunt by an obscure rabbi to elevate his own status on the back of a very successful entertainer and activist.” In the comments section of the online version of the paper, Silverman’s father also jumped into the fray, strongly defending his daughter.

For her part, Susan Silverman is fully supportive of her sister’s brand of political speech. “She’s a modern-day prophet,” Susan Silverman said.  “I couldn’t disagree more with that rabbi from Texas. Some people will choose to focus on the F-word when she uses it, and some choose to hear the message.”

Despite the Jewish reference in its name,  JCER isn’t exclusively focused on reaching Jewish voters, Moore said. One of its Web videos, featuring Latina actress Rosie Perez, skewers Romney’s statement “it’d be helpful to be Latino,” made at a Florida fundraiser secretly filmed and then publicized by Mother Jones.

Another video, titled “Wake the F**k Up,” features Samuel L. Jackson, and has been viewed over 1 million times on YouTube.

“Our videos are designed to appeal to Jews but aren’t narrowly tailored towards Jews,” Moore said. “They are largely meant for the Democratic base.”

What do (suburban) women want?

If you watched any of the debates on CNN, you saw two worms at the bottom of your screen. Well, they looked to me like worms, or maybe caterpillars, scrunching and stretching throughout the 90 minutes. Actually they were real-time graphs — with one color for men, another for women — recording the instant reactions of members of undecided focus groups to what they, and we, were watching. As they listened to the debate, these influential voters turned their hand-held dials up into the plus zone when they liked what they saw, and down when they didn’t. CNN calls this its “exclusive on-air undecided voters meter.” What they should call it is junk journalism.

How many voters? In the second presidential debate, 35 people in Ohio were wired to the worms. Actually, they weren’t completely undecided. As CNN anchor Erin Burnett explained, half of the 35 were for Obama, and half for Romney, but they said they might change their minds. I’m guessing the split was actually 18 to 17, or vice versa, unless they turned up one voter in Ohio who was split in two, half for Obama and half for Romney, or maybe they found someone all for Obama and all for Romney simultaneously — Burnett didn’t say. (The 35 were also split between men and women, suggesting that the odd man out was more precisely the odd man-woman out.)

I don’t know whether the TV screens these focus groups were watching carried the same CNN feed that I or anyone else in America might have been watching.  If they were — if their instant reaction to their own instant reaction could, in turn, instantly affect their own reaction — then Jorge Luis Borges and the makers of “The Matrix” have nothing on CNN.

Even for those of us in the audience not controlling the caterpillars, watching these meters’ ups and downs has been a strange experience. If you’re tuned to CNN, which brands itself as the only news network not committed to a candidate, your view of the debate is literally framed by the scrolling political vital signs of a non-nationally representative focus group. I bet it’s been pretty much impossible for anyone to watch the debates without paying attention to, and even being affected by, the impact of the candidates’ and moderators’ words and body language on this sample of a teeny tiny but immensely empowered sliver of the American electorate.

This made me a little bit crazy, especially when I found myself yelling “Yes!” to some things, like the president’s rediscovered willingness to nail his opponent, which the yellow line of undecided women didn’t much like at all. I was torn between feeling genuinely good about my guy getting his mojo back, but also wanting him to win over these voters who still can’t make up their minds despite all they’ve heard; whose belief in can’t-we-all-get-along comity is a suicidal strategy for countering ruthless Republican obstructionism; and who nevertheless are the magical swing voters in the magical swing states with the muscle to decide the election.

Framing a successful debate performance as the successful seduction of 35 undecided Ohioans disses other criteria for success. The meter readout of a group of people that, say, regularly consumes newspapers or watches “The Daily Show,” would likely take a different path. That graph might not predict how swing voters will break on Election Day, but it also might not discount the premium that at least some citizens want other citizens — and journalists — to put on facts, context, reason, history and reality.

Of course no one’s being forced to watch CNN’s swing-o-meter. But it can’t be long before real-time tabulation of the sentiments of various audience segments becomes an expected and common element of all infotainment. As we watch the TV screen, we’re already learning in real time what topics and attitudes are trending on social media, either because we’re simultaneously checking out another screen, like the Twitter feed on our smartphones (guilty), or because that information is embedded in the crawl at the bottom of the TV screen. The most popular news Web sites are already telling us which of their stories are the most popular right now so that we can check them out and make them even more popular. Self-surveillance is entertaining; we enjoy learning about us. But when technology puts a finger on the civic scale, when it skews what we esteem in political discourse, when it privileges popularity over other criteria for worth, an instant-reaction gizmo isn’t just fun, it’s potentially as subversive as the Electoral College, Citizens United or the ascendance of post-truth politics. 

This election will likely come down to the last-minute decisions of a few thousand people in a handful of states. Both campaigns conduct nightly tracking polls sensitive enough to detect each passing zephyr in undecided voters’ minds. They’re constantly testing phrases and issues to figure out what will move the meter for single noncollege undecided women in the suburbs of Columbus and Orlando, or whoever the decisive ones turn out to be at the end of the trail. Media organizations are also collecting increasingly subtle data about their audiences, some of them swapping editorial judgment for real-time metrics about what their customers want so that they can give them more of it. Micro-pandering: that’s how you win elections and ratings these days, and yes, winning is what counts. But I can’t help fantasizing about an alternative reality where candidates and coverage don’t routinely blow off the highest common denominators in their publics.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Petition links Peres prize to Pollard

An Israeli petition is demanding that Shimon Peres condition his acceptance of the U.S. Medal of Freedom on clemency for Jonathan Pollard.

The online petition, which had garnered more than 10,000 signatures on Monday, praises Israel’s elder statesman for the honor that President Obama plans to bestow on him later this year.

“We ask you to exploit your unprecedented diplomatic status to act immediately for Jonathan Pollard’s release, before you receive the medal,” the petition states. “Only this will avert a situation whereby conferring the Medal of Freedom makes a mockery of Jonathan and his country.”

Pollard is serving a life prison sentence for passing Israel military secrets while he served as a civilian U.S. Navy analyst in the 1980s. Israel, which gave Pollard citizenship, has lobbied consecutive U.S. administrations to grant him an early release.

A Jerusalem official declined to comment directly on the petition addressed to Peres, the Israeli president, but said the Netanyahu government continued to view Pollard’s case as a priority.

Obama during his speech earlier this month before the AIPAC policy conference said he would award the medal—the highest honor that the United States can award to a civilian—to Peres this summer.

Wasserman-Schultz to JFNA: defend Obama’s record

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the Democratic Party leader, urged Jewish leaders to push back against what she said were distortions of President Obama’s Israel record.

Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, defended Obama to the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, taking place this year in Denver, calling attacks on his Israel record “deliberate distortions.”

She urged those attending to “spread the word” about his increases in defense assistance to the Jewish state, and noted the recent coordination with Israel countering the Palestinian push for statehood recognition at the United Nations.

“Israel should never be used as a political football,” she said.

Republican and conservative critics of Obama have emphasized diplomatic tensions between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Pawlenty: Israeli and Palestinian peace ‘further away’ since Obama

Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty charged that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is “further away now” than it was the day President Obama took office.

Speaking Tuesday before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, criticized Obama’s handling of the Middle East conflict, calling his lack of judgment on dealing with Israel “stunning.”

“It breaks my heart that President Obama treats Israel, our great friend, as a problem, rather than as an ally,” Pawlenty said. “Today the president doesn’t really have a policy toward the peace process. He has an attitude. And let’s be frank about what that attitude is. He thinks Israel is the problem. And he thinks the answer is always more pressure on Israel.”

Pawlenty said Obama seems to “genuinely believe the Palestinian and Israeli conflict lies at the heart of every problem in the Middle East.”

“The uprisings in Tunisia, Cairo, Tripoli and elsewhere are not about Israelis and Palestinians. They’re about oppressed people yearning for freedom and prosperity,” Pawlenty said. “Whether those countries become prosperous and free is not about how many apartments Israel builds in Jerusalem.”

If elected, Pawlenty said he would never undermine Israel’s negotiating position or pressure it to negotiate with Hamas. He said he would ensure financial assistance to the Palestinians ends immediately if the teaching of hatred in classrooms and on public airwaves continues.

“We must recognize that peace will only come if everyone in the region perceives clearly that America stands strongly with Israel,” Pawlenty said.

Letters to the Editor: President Obama, Muslim Americans, Sarah Palin, Independence Day Festival

Listen to President Obama

It is ironic that Judea Pearl wrote this article on the eve of perhaps the worst foreign policy speech on Israel and the Middle East in American history (“Words Matter — Obama’s Next Challenge,” May 20). His phrase “Words Matter” tells it all. The words in this case, were all wrong.

Obama’s appeal to the Jewish public seems to be that he is the proverbial underdog, heralding a new era of tolerance and compassion. We associate him with the disenfranchised because of the color of his skin. I understand that. But Obama’s record on the Middle East is clear; his support for Israel is fraught with conditions that put Israel on a path to destruction.

Victoria Talbot
via e-mail


Achieving Better Treatment for Muslim Americans

David Lehrer and Joe Hicks question the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s assessment that “Muslim Americans have suffered a 10-year span of nasty, irrational anti-Muslim attitudes and actions in this country resulting in ‘alienation and psychological ghettoization’ ”(“Right Goal — Wrong Strategy,” May 13).

In fact, hateful crimes and bigoted attitudes toward Muslims continue unabated in this country. According to a 2010 Gallup poll, nearly one-third of Americans (31 percent) say their opinion of Islam is “not favorable at all” in sharp contrast to Americans’ views of Christianity and Judaism, which are far more likely to be “very favorable.”

Attitudes impact actions: Last August, a college student stabbed a New York City cabdriver after the cabbie confirmed he was Muslim, and a man urinated on prayer rugs at a mosque, shouting anti-Muslim slurs; in May 2010, an Islamic center in Jacksonville, Fla., was bombed; last year, a California mosque was vandalized with graffiti that referenced Ground Zero; in February 2010, a mosque in Nashville, Tenn., was spray painted “Muslims go home” in bright red paint and a letter left behind called Muslims “the enemy”; and barely two months ago, Pastor Terry Jones presided over the burning of a Quran in Gainesville, Fla. These ugly incidents should ring all too familiar to Jews.

Hicks and Lehrer imply that acts of violence committed by some Muslims might understandably lead us to relax our “commitment to tolerance.” But blaming all for the actions of some is the essence of prejudice and collective guilt. As a people who have suffered from guilt by association, we must oppose it when it is visited upon others.

The authors also point out that reported hate crimes against Jews are more numerous than those against Muslims. Anti-Semitic views and acts are unacceptable and should be opposed by all. However, while we too were once seen in mainstream circles as foreign interlopers incapable of becoming American, today our rights to build houses of worship and practice our religion are not under sustained attack in the United States. Not so for Muslim Americans who across the nation — including here in Southern California — have faced ugly opposition to their First Amendment rights to build mosques and worship peacefully.

Well-meaning observers like Lehrer and Hicks should remember the most repeated mitzvah in the Torah — “Remember the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” — and should join with others in the Jewish community and their allies in condemning all acts of hatred and intolerance.

Stephen Rohde, president
Elissa Barrett, executive director
Eric Greene, regional director Progressive Jewish Alliance


Another View of Solitary Confinement

While Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s humanitarian concerns, overcrowding statistics and biblical references all have merit, he is leaving out a large part of the equation that leads to the decisions to house certain inmates this way (“Solitary Confinement: When Solitude Is No Longer a Virtue,” May 20). Other than some very high-profile cases such as “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski who are housed in Supermax facilities simply due to their celebrity, a great many of these inmates are simply too unruly to live in the general inmate populations because they have repeatedly attacked staff members and assaulted other inmates. Correctional officers, and in some cases the inmate’s former cell partners, have been injured or murdered over extremely trivial offenses. Correction officials do not take the inmate populations of these Supermax facilities lightly, as the facilities are the most costly to build and operate, and they are continually trying to “promote” the inmates back to general inmate populations when they demonstrate better behavior.

John Rico
via e-mail


A Journey on Arab Street

I wanted to commend you on your thoughtful and incisive piece on the Arab street (“Street Smarts,” May 20). While I am sure the piece provoked some strong reactions, I thought it was a balanced and realistic take on the practical implications of the Arab spring both for Israel and the region as a whole.

Hoyt Hilsman
via e-mail


The Lightning Rod Sarah Palin

While it is egregious that Sarah Palin continues to be basically a windless weather vane of political nonwisdom (“Palin, Trump Don’t Excite Jewish Republicans,” May 13), I would say that Jennifer Rubin and Bill Kristol — in addition to criticizing Palin — might want to step back and examine why they were so eagerly supportive of her in the first place.

Scott Lenz
Los Angeles


A Better Tomorrow

Joe Hicks and David Lehrer’s statistics may be cited for support but not for illumination (Right Goal — Wrong Strategy,” May 13). They may count people’s attitudes toward Muslims but they cannot count our collective dreams for a better tomorrow for our friends and family. Hicks and Lehrer are scaring us with their nightmares. Fear is a debilitating force where our common humanity is concerned. It will not have the last word.

Rabbi Steven Jacobs
via e-mail


The Border Wars

What people have to keep in mind is that no matter what Israel’s Arab neighbors say today, most have shown they can’t be trusted (“Words Matter — Obama’s Next Challenge,” May 20). Israel gave up Gaza, a forced disruption of so many Jewish communities, only to have Gazans elect Hamas to lead them and turn Gaza into the source of constant missile attacks against Israel. Now Hamas will be part of the “united” Palestine’s government. No matter what is promised, can anyone believe they will ever accept Israel’s existence? Israel gave up the Sinai for a signed peace treaty, and now Egypt is threatening to abandon that treaty. And the idea of giving back the Golan Heights, which, under Syrian control, continually bombed the Jewish homes, schools and school buses below, killing so many civilians, is a non-starter. The Arab spring may exchange autocrats for fundamentalist sharia governments who are even more dangerous to Israel and to the West. The fact is, the Palestinians have never accepted any Israeli borders, either in 1948 or 1967. Obama’s timing of this route to “peace” is perfect. He is either the stupidest man on earth or truly sides with the Muslims.

Noelle Donfeld
via e-mail


A Palestinian State

It is expected in September there will be a U.N. resolution for the creation of an independent country for the Palestinians. The members of the U.N. who will be voting, including the United States, will be considering the creation of a country whose charter and leaders openly state their goal to destroy another U.N. member. The Palestinian leaders and its current key faction, Hamas, again and again call for destruction of the State of Israel.

It would be hypocritical and dangerous for the United Nations (and the United States) to agree to the creation of a country that would legitimize a stated goal to destroy another U.N. member. The U.N. should not tolerate, let alone approve, any entity to become a country intent on destroying another U.N. member. One could only imagine what other groups could exploit, under the United Nations endorsement if there is a Palestinian country created with the current stated goal of the leaders of the Palestinian entity.

The United Nations (and the United States) must insist that the Palestinian entity agree to Israel’s right to exist before approving any U.N. resolution to create an independent country for the Palestinians.

Alan Warshaw
Palo Alto


Lighter Look at Diplomatic Meeting

If President Obama had called Prime Minister Netanyahu prior to their meeting, with Bob Newhart playing Netanyahu:

Hello, Mr. President. Thanks for giving me your recommendations in advance on how to move the peace talks along. What? You want the borders to revert to the 1967 lines? Then Israel should be able to deal with the Palestinians? You are aware, sir, that Israel would now have to negotiate with Hamas. You don’t think that’s a problem? Even though Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and calls for Israel’s complete destruction? I’m a little uncomfortable with that. Oh, we would all sign an agreement. And you think that would bind the Palestinians? You do, because you would have the agreement signed in front of a notary. And you held a séance and Neville Chamberlain said there will be peace in our time.

Reverting to the 1967 borders would put thousands of Israeli’s at risk. What if the Palestinians attack us? We shouldn’t worry because you think you could convince Congress to pay for the installation of an alarm system in each Israeli home. That could be a big job, sir, are their alarm companies that could handle that? You recommend the Islamic Brotherhood Alarm Co. That ‘s not too reassuring to us, Mr. President. Oh, they have a motto — “We aim to please.” Exactly what might they be aiming sir, possibly rockets? The radicals seem to like to use Israel citizens for target practice. It helps them feel like brave warriors. If they did launch rockets towards Israel, Israel would have to aggressively retaliate. You don’t recommend that? It would be bad for Israel PR? And you plan on talking to the Taliban and you will put in a good word for us. That’s supposed to make us feel better?

This all could be a tough sell back home, Mr. President. I will have to get back to you. I know you would like this finalized before the next presidential election, but please don’t call me, I’ll call you.

Michael A. Gesas
Beverly Hills


Two-way Street

Rob Eshman is onto something (“Street Smarts,” May 20). The Arab spring has made a big difference in the Middle East. As Rob notes, Arabs and Muslims are people, too; they want economic opportunity, free speech and honest government. There is “an awakening of nonviolent Palestinian protest.”

He exhorts Israel to “think and act fast.” Israel needs to innovate; they must address the future. And therein lies a great opportunity for Israel to use its outstanding assets to gain the respect and admiration of the Arab/Muslim world and, indeed, people all over the world. It is an opportunity for the State of Israel to establish peaceful, harmonious relations with its neighbors.

The assets I refer to are not its armed might but rather Israel’s demonstrated ability to develop industries and resources, to build an economically viable, highly successful nation.

My vision: The State of Israel announces to the world that it stands ready to help ¬— yes, help — its neighboring Arab/Muslim countries that desire to improve the economic status and living conditions of its people. With financial support from wealthy Arab nations (such as Saudi Arabia), Israel will provide the manpower, the know-how and guidance to help the Palestinians and Egyptians to develop new industries, create new jobs, and build their infrastructures and educational resources so their people can live happier, healthier lives — in peace and harmony with all other nations.

Yes, this represents a major paradigm shift. It will take determination. There may be objections and obstacles to overcome; but it can be done. The benefits could be earth-shaking … and change world history for the better.

George Epstein
Los Angeles


Your editorial this week, Mr. Robert Eshman, has enough chutzpah in it to provoke me into responding at the beginning of my first reading of your writing (“Street Smarts,” May 20). I doubt whether you can outclass the chutzpah of our president this past week, but your sanitation of the Mavi Marmara passengers by calling them people, and your sympathetic portrayal of the nakba suggests a naivete which I doubt you have. It didn’t take a gun to slay Goliath as sticks and stones do wreak havoc as witnessed by the Mavi Marmara passengers who were armed with clubs. Please, you may editorialize all you want to but don’t assume all your readers are on to you, there are some very impressionable minds that may even be swayed by your rhetoric, language is very powerful, too many anti-Israel chutzpaniks take to task Israel for not willingly agreeing to succumb to her own annihilation. Peace now will only succeed if Israel remains strong. Study your history. For shame

Toby Willner
Los Angeles


Stepping Out

I couldn’t disagree with Dennis Prager more (“Dancing With the Rabbis?” April 15). I am a conservative and agree with 99 percent of Dennis’ views, but in this one he got it all wrong. Participating in this event did not make the rabbi equal to us, just merely another human being who wanted to have some fun. Now that it is over, I still respect our rabbi. I just now know that he can’t dance!

Paul Goldman
via e-mail


Bring Back Israel Independence Day Festival

Rob’s right — the absence of the festival is a great loss to the greater L.A. Jewish community and a reflection of a fracturing of our communal leadership (“I Miss Us,” May 13). The Federation, the Israel Leadership Council and Yoram Gutman will, hopefully, get their act together (and maybe reach out to some other potential supporters) so we can gather at Woodley Park or some other appropriate venue next year. It’s a bit of a shandah that Irvine and Santa Barbara can put on impressive Yom HaAtzmaut parties while L.A. drops the ball.

Rabbi Gil Kollin
via email


Sad about the festival at Woodley Park, so come up to Santa Barbara’s Oak Park and celebrate with us.

Judy Mannaberg-Goldman
Santa Barbara


Film Preview

Wow, how do we get this film to South Florida (“Yoya’s Promise,” May 13)?

herri Gross
via email

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement following President Obama’s speech

Israel appreciates President Obama’s commitment to peace.  Israel believes that for peace to endure between Israelis and Palestinians, the viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state.

That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress.

Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines.

Those commitments also ensure Israel’s well-being as a Jewish state by making clear that Palestinian refugees will settle in a future Palestinian state rather than in Israel.

Without a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem outside the borders of Israel, no territorial concession will bring peace.

Equally, the Palestinians, and not just the United States, must recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and any peace agreement with them must end all claims against Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu will make clear that the defense of Israel requires an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River.

Prime Minister Netanyahu will also express his disappointment over the Palestinian Authority’s decision to embrace Hamas, a terror organization committed to Israel’s destruction, as well as over Mahmoud Abbas’s recently expressed views which grossly distort history and make clear that Abbas seeks a Palestinian state in order to continue the conflict with Israel rather than end it.

Obama’s Middle East speech draws ire and support [VIDEO]

In his speech at the State Department on Thursday, President Barack Obama addressed the rapidly changing situation in the Middle East and put forward Israel’s pre-1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations that would yield a future Palestinian state.

Even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is set to meet with Obama in Washington on Friday, released a statement disputing most of what Obama said about the Israel-Palestinian situation,  the immediate reaction among American Jewish leaders and Israel-related organizations to the speech was mixed. Groups on the left applauded the president’s outline while hoping for further action. Some right-leaning organizations expressed surprise and disappointment at the president’s promotion of the pre-1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations—even as they praised Obama’s clear opposition to the Palestinian plan to seek a declaration of statehood along those same borders from the United Nations’ General Assembly in September.

The pro-peace advocacy group J Street, which was founded to push for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, applauded the president’s speech. “The overall tone and overall framing of the current urgency of the situation we were very, very pleased with,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, said in an interview.

The plan that Obama outlined would treat the 1967 borders as a basic outline for a Palestinian state, and calls for mutually agreeable land swaps to achieve both security for Israel and a sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state. “That’s exactly the approach that J Street called for in December,” Ben-Ami said.

In an advertisement that appeared in Israeli papers this week, 18 Israeli generals, 5 former ambassadors and many others signed a similarly themed statement. “Recognizing a Palestinian State Based On the 1967 Borders is Vital for Israel’s Existence,” the English version of the ad read. With the help of $65,000 raised from over 1,000 donors, J Street reprinted the ad in the New York Times on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu called the 1967 lines “indefensible,” and many American Jewish organizations echoed Netanyahu’s assessment in their remarks.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center, called the plan a return to “1967 Auschwitz Borders,” and took strong issue with Obama’s call for basing negotiations on Israel’s pre-1967 borders, with mutually agreed upon land swaps. Hier called such a possibility, while Hamas shares power in the Palestinian territories, living in a “fantasy world.”

“We have all these diplomats all around the world trying to force Israel into a deal with Hamas, when Hamas this very day and this very week has made clear they will never, ever recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel. So who are we kidding?”

Hier said the Auschwitz reference came from a 1969 statement by Abba Eban, then foreign minister of Israel. Eban told Der Spiegel: “We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967. For us, this is a matter of security and of principles. The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz.”

“I don’t like to use the Auschwitz terminology, I don’t like to make that comparison,” Hier said. “I use it here to point out that Israel’s borders have to be defensible.”

Story continues after the jump.

Video courtesy of WhiteHouse.gov

Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University, called the Auschwitz reference a “cheap and offensive trivialization.” Berenbaum said he is a good friend of Hier’s and respects him, but emphasized Hier “knows better.”

“The entire modern Jewish history since the Holocaust has been toward the empowerment of the Jewish people. And if we are to perceive even for a moment that we are as disempowered as the Jews were at Auschwitz, we are denying all of our post-1945 Jewish history, and that is an insult to everything the Jewish community has achieved in terms of military, political and economic power,” Berenbaum said.

“Answer one question,” Berenbaum added. “How many tanks did Jews have at Auschwitz? How many planes? Missiles, bombs, troops?”

Bnai B’rith International also issued a statement commending the speech while expressing concern at the President’s reliance on pre-1967 borders, but other Jewish organizations did not share those reservations.

“We support the President’s vision of a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement with strong security provisions for Israel, and a non-militarized Palestinian state,” read a statement issued by Robert G. Sugarman, ADL National Chair, and Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. “We appreciate his direct rejection of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and his understanding that the Hamas-Fatah agreement poses major problems for Israel.”

The ADL statement commended Obama’s affirmation of the moral and strategic connections between Israel and the United States, and said the speech was a welcome measure of Obama’s Israel barometer.

“This Administration has come a long way in two years in terms of understanding of the nuances involved in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace and a better understanding of the realities and challenges confronting Israel.” Almost exactly two years ago, Obama made his first speech, in Cairo, on the Middle East, which was seen as an overture to the Muslim world, but enraged many supporters of Israel.

The Israel Project, a pro-Israel education organization which has called the Palestinian plan to unilaterally seek recognition of a state on the 1967 borders in the United Nations’ General Assembly in September “a clear attempt to delegitimize and attack Israel,” found much that was praiseworthy in Obama’s speech.

“He told Palestinians that they should return to negotiations rather than seek empty declarations at the U.N. that will gain them nothing. That is an important marker that the United States will oppose that effort,” Israel Project Senior Director Alan Elsner said.

Elsner also expressed appreciation for Obama’s assessment of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and which recently entered into a unity government with the Fatah faction that controls parts of the West Bank. “President Obama’s recognition that Israel should not be expected to negotiate with an organization dedicated to its destruction was constructive,” Elsner said.

There was disagreement among American Jewish political leaders about whether the president’s speech put the onus for future action on the Israelis or on the Palestinians.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, said that the president’s speech “undermines our special relationship with Israel and weakens our ally’s ability to defend itself.”

“By keeping the burden and thus the spotlight on Israel, the President is only giving the Palestinian Authority more incentive to carry on its unhelpful game of sidestepping negotiations and failing to put an end to terrorism,” Cantor said in an emailed statement. “Creating another Palestinian terror state on Israel’s borders is something that none of us want.”

California Congressman Howard Berman, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, came to the exact opposite conclusion. He said the president’s speech “puts the ball squarely in the Palestinian court.”

“The Palestinians must resolve their Hamas problem once and for all: either jettison Hamas or do the seemingly impossible and change them into a respectable, anti-violence organization that recognizes Israel and accepts all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements as the basis for going forward,” Berman said in a statement. “The Palestinians must show they’re serious about peace-making. That means no games at the UN, no partnership with terrorists, no threats to take Israel to the International Criminal Court, and no boycott of negotiations. When the current phase of Palestinian posturing ends, we can begin to address some of the serious issues the President and others have raised.”

For its part, Americans for Peace Now put a statement on it Web site from the group’s President and CEO Debra DeLee welcoming Obama’s “pragmatic” approach to the recent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. 

“It is indeed incumbent on the Palestinians to provide a credible answer to those who suggest that Israel cannot negotiate peace with a unity government. As we have long argued, any Palestinian government should be judged by its actions and positions, not it composition,” DeLee said.

While many felt the president didn’t say much that was new regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what was significant was that he laid out policies and motivations clearly.

“It’s an important shift in the articulation of American foreign policy, which has rested on the belief that the 1967 border is the basis for a two-state solution, but has not been formally declared in this explicit fashion,” said David Myers, chairman of UCLA’s history department. “At the same time, it must be noted that every serious peace proposal rests on this very proposition, so it is not new in that regard. Moreover, it is not clear whether it will make any difference unless the President makes clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that it’s no longer possible to sit on his hands and do nothing.”

Obama’s speech urged the Israelis and Palestinians to solve territorial and security issues first, even though the “wrenching and emotional” disputes over the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees remained unresolved.

Netanyahu took issue with this, saying that the U.S., under President George W. Bush,  had committed in 2004 to a solution that would “ensure Israel’s well-being as a Jewish state by making clear that Palestinian refugees will settle in a future Palestinian state rather than in Israel.”

“Without a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem outside the borders of Israel,” Netanyahu’s statement said, “no territorial concession will bring peace.”

Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said he believes the speech was addressed not toward the Middle East, but toward the Washington establishment that needs to understand “we are working against the clock.”

“His message was that America needs to understand the moment in history that we are all witnessing in the Mideast,” Al-Marayati said, “and unless we catch up with where events are taking the region, we are going to be left out in terms of being of any relevance in the region,” Al-Marayati said. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is “probably going to be one of the last things resolved or addressed vis a vis the Arab Spring,” he continued. “As we see more dictators being toppled, there is going to be more of a desire by the people of the regions to see a resolution to [the conflict with Israel], and the United States and the Israeli government are both going to be faced with difficult decisions.”

The Arab Spring has proven that the power lies with the people, Al-Marayati said, and he believes “the will of the people has been determined—to have change without resorting to political violence. And anyone that continues to use ideological violence as an instrument of change in time will also be irrelevant.”

That is why he believes Hamas will be marginalized “unless they come to grips with reality – a two-state solution,” Al-Marayati said.

Obama’s will speak at the annual AIPAC conference next week, where he is likely reveal more details about how he will back up the policies he articulated Thursday at the State Department.

White House hosts heritage month festivities [VIDEO]

President Obama hosted a reception for Jewish American Heritage Month.

The reception Tuesday was less formal than the inaugural one last year, with brief remarks and a small Marine Corps band playing klezmer music.

The 300 invitees included “grass-roots Jewish community leaders from across the country, rabbis, Members of Congress, and a broad range of leaders engaged in business, the arts, education, and public and community service,” a White House official said.

Obama in delivering greetings noted the presence of Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace laureate and Holocaust memoirist; newly named Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who authored the legislation passed in 2006 initiating the heritage month; Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren; and Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“The Jewish community in the United States has always stood for freedom, and that includes our unshakeable support and commitment to the security of the State of Israel,” he said.

The Maccabeats, an cappella group launched at Yeshiva University, provided entertainment.

L.A. leaders visit White House in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month

Four leaders of the Los Angeles Jewish community were among about 200 people who met President Barack Obama during a White House reception in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.

“To be inside the home of the locus of power of our country and for Western democracy is a pretty extraordinary thing,” said Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, leader of Temple Beth Am. “And it’s no small thing that a lot of people at this event are the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of refugees who came to America on the promise of freedom and possibility of equality.”

Temple Beth Am member

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Clinton sends Israel Independence Day greetings

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sent best wishes to Israel for its Independence Day on behalf of President Obama and the U.S. people.

In the statement issued Sunday, Clinton called Israel, on its 63rd birthday, “a young nation, but a rich history that holds deep meaning for so many.”

“Your achievements are a testament to your hardworking citizens, innovative economy, and commitment to democratic institutions. Israel has been a beacon of hope and freedom for so many around the world,” Clinton’s statement continued.

“Our two countries are united by a deep, unshakable friendship and bond. We are bound together by our shared values and history pursuing freedom, equality and democracy. And this relationship is deepening every day,” Clinton said.

Clinton also called Israel’s security “a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy” and said that the United States “will continue to strive for a comprehensive peace between Israel and all of its neighbors.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet Obama at the White House on May 20. The effort to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process reportedly will be the main item on the agenda.

Obama: Changes in Mideast make Israel-Palestinian peace more urgent than ever

United States President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that with the winds of change sweeping the broader Middle East it was “more urgent than ever” to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Obama was speaking to reporters after holding White House talks with President Shimon Peres.

Following the meet, Peres gave a press conference during which he reiterated Obama’s message, saying “both ourselves and the Palestinians think that what is happening in other Arab countries will have a big influence on us and on the Palestinians.”

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Peres arrives in D.C.

Shimon Peres arrived in Washington for a three-day visit that will include a meeting with President Obama.

Peres, who arrived Monday, will discuss “security cooperation between Israel and the United States, recent developments in the Middle East, and the pursuit of peace between Israel and its neighbors,” during his meeting with Obama, according to a statement from Peres’ office.

He is scheduled to meet as well with other administration officials, including on Monday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The White House said Peres is scheduled to have a “working lunch” Tuesday with President Obama. Israeli media have reported that Peres will present Obama with the outlines of the peace plan that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expects to introduce in an address at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy forum next month.

In a meeting Sunday before Peres’ departure, Netanyahu reportedly asked Peres to send a message to American officials that he is willing to renew peace talks with the Palestinians and that the Palestinians were responsible for the current impasse, Ynet reported.

Peres on Wednesday will visit Capitol Hill for meetings with Republican and Democratic leaders, and will be hosted by the House of Representatives speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). He also reportedly is scheduled to meet with Vice President Joe Biden.

The Israeli president will fly to New York midweek for additional meetings, including with the United Nations ambassadors of the current Security Council member countries. On Wednesday he will attend a dinner hosted by the Center for Middle East Peace, a think tank with close Obama administration ties.

Prior to leaving for the United States, Peres met Sunday with Jonathan Pollard’s wife, who said she asked the Israeli president to request clemency for her husband from Obama.

“The president listened to me, and I hope and believe that [what I told him] penetrated his heart,” Esther Pollard told The Jerusalem Post.

Jonathan Pollard has been imprisoned in the United States for 25 years for spying for Israel while working as a civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy. The Pollards married while Jonathan was in prison.

Current and former U.S. lawmakers and government officials have called on Obama in recent weeks to grant clemency to Pollard.

Ross: Turmoil sharpens Israeli needs for security guarantees

The recent Middle East turmoil has sharpened Israeli needs for tangible security guarantees in exchange for concessions to the Palestinians, Dennis Ross said.

Ross, President Obama’s top Middle East adviser, told the Anti-Defamation League’s annual leadership conference in Washington on Monday that security guarantees sought by Israel toward a peace deal with the Palestinians were critical, “particularly during a time of change.”

The Palestinians, in turn, “need to see that they can have an independent state that is viable and contiguous” as well as “signs the occupation is receding.”

Ross outlined the Obama administration’s approach to the “Arab Spring,” the push for democracy roiling the Middle East: Assist those governments ready to transition to democracy and oppose those that increase oppression in the face of protest, sometimes with military force, as with Libya.

Ross said that the unrest sweeping the region could result in democratic regimes structurally more likely to ensure peace with Israel—but could also prove a bonanza for Islamists hoping to exploit the turmoil.

He implied that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front would help facilitate the former scenario. Democrats in the region “need to see that negotiations cannot only take place, they can produce,” he said, and then he cited Israeli-Palestinian talks as an example.

Ross reiterated the Obama administration position opposing Palestinian attempts to obtain recognition of statehood before striking a deal with Israel.

“We have consistently made it clear that the way to produce a Palestinian state is through negotiations, not through unilateral declarations, not through going to the U.N.,” he said.

Ross said the U.S.-Israel defense relationship was “better than ever,” with greater depth and substance than under previous administrations.

He quoted from remarks two weeks ago by Robert Gates during the U.S. defense secretary’s visit to Israel.

“I cannot recall a time during my public life when our two countries have had a closer defense relationship,” Gates had said. “The U.S. and Israel are cooperating closely in areas such as missile defense technology, the Joint Strike Fighter, and in training exercises such as Juniper Stallion—cooperation and support that ensures that Israel will continue to maintain its qualitative military edge.”

Separately, Defense News reported Monday that Israel and the United States are planning a “massive exercise” that would allow both countries to function as a wartime joint task force.