Administration’s emphasis on Settlements meets limited Congressional Resistance

When President Barack Obama met with Binyamin Netanyahu on May 18 he emphasized to the Israeli prime minister that he wants to see a comprehensive stop to all settlement building. The next day, when Netanyahu held a round of meetings on Capitol Hill, several media reports said that he received the same message. An Americans for Peace Now press release cited “one media report” as saying that the only member of Congress not to speak out against the settlements was Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA). Later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized in an interview with the Al-Jazeera network that “we want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth–”any kind of settlement activity.”

AIPAC immediately geared up its formidable spin machine in an effort to show lack of congressional support for Obama’s Middle East policies. The first step was to press for as many signatures as possible on the AIPAC-drafted (see the box on p. 28 of the July Washington Report ) “Peace Principles” letter originated by Cantor and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (MD), as well as a similar Senate letter originated by Sens. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA). Both letters state that any peace agreement must be reached by the parties themselves and that the U.S. must work with Israel, which “will be taking the greatest risks in any peace agreement” (i.e., no pressure on Israel). They also say that the U.S. should continue to press the Palestinians to end terrorism and build institutions and to press other Arab states to normalize ties with Israel and support moderate Palestinians. There is no mention of what Israel should do to promote peace. The Senate letter was sent on May 19 with 76 signatures. The House letter was sent May 28 with 330 signatures.

According to a June 1 article in the DC-based publication Politico, Israel’s congressional allies were concerned about Obama’s pressure on Israel over the settlements. However, the article quoted only five representatives, all Jewish, as criticizing the administration’s position: Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Shelley Berkley (D-NV), Cantor, Anthony Weiner (D-NY) and Robert Wexler (D-FL). Both Ackerman and Wexler are on record as criticizing Israel’s settlements policy (see May/June Washington Report, p. 30), and Ackerman issued a press release on June 4 urging a freeze on settlement construction. This leaves the Politico article with Israel-firsters Berkley, Cantor and Weiner, which makes it a dog-bites-man story.

AIPAC Letter Countered by Pro-Peace Letter

While AIPAC was twisting arms for signatures on its so-called “Peace Principles” letter, Reps. Charles Boustany (R-LA), Russ Carnahan (D-MO) and Steve Cohen (D-TN) were circulating a thoughtful pro-peace letter to Obama applauding his “intention to provide strong American leadership to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian and broader Arab-Israeli conflicts.” The letter’s signers said they “believe that America best serves our historic friendship with Israel when it is actively working to de-escalate conflict and advance peace, and that our relationships throughout the Arab and Muslim world will be strengthened through a negotiated agreement that ends the conflict,” and that “strong consideration should be given to pursuing a regional, comprehensive approach to resolving the conflict, such as the Arab Peace Initiative.”

The letter was sent on June 3 with 86 signatures.

Supplemental Appropriations Bill Includes Middle East Funding

The Conference Committee reconciling the House and Senate versions of H.R. 2346, the FY ’09 supplemental appropriations bill, issued its report, H.Rept. 111-151, on June 12, and Congress passed it the following week, sending it to the president for signature. Both houses of Congress added to the administration’s $83.4 billion request, making the final total about $106 billion, the bulk of which is to fund the ongoing military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, more than $2 billion is for Middle East countries.

The amounts for the West Bank and Gaza (WBG) totaled $789 million (about $100 million less than pledged by Clinton at the March 2 donors conference to raise funds for Gaza’s recovery, as detailed in the May/June Washington Report). The total comprised $551 million in economic aid, including “not more than” a $200 million cash transfer to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank; $109 million to continue training Palestinian security forces; “up to” $119 million for UNRWA activities in the WBG (but also requiring a detailed report on UNRWA’s activities), and $10 million for USAID’s operations in the WBG. The bill also provides $50 million in economic aid for Egypt (largely for training and equipment to prevent smuggling into Gaza); $150 million in economic aid for Jordan; $10 million in economic aid for Yemen; and $69 million to strengthen the Lebanese Armed Forces.

In addition, the bill provides advance funding for part of the expected FY ’10 military aid appropriations for Israel, Egypt and Jordan. For Israel the bill provides $555 million of the $2.775 billion expected to be appropriated, with $145.965 million (the usual 26.3 percent) available for procurement from Israel firms. For Egypt the bill provides $260 million of the expected $1.3 billion, and $150 million of the expected $300 million for Jordan.

The July Washington Report described Clinton’s April appearance before House committees to support the administration’s request. She faced sharp criticisms from some committee members, especially from Foreign Operations Subcommittee chair Nita Lowey (D-NY), about language in the budget request that would allow the U.S. to help an eventual power-sharing government between Fatah and Hamas if that government (as opposed to all members of that government) recognizes Israel, renounces violence, and agrees to all previous agreements. In the end, Lowey prevailed. The conference report includes a provision prohibiting aid to Hamas “or any power-sharing government of which Hamas is a member” unless the president certifies “that such government, including all of its ministers or such equivalent, has publicly accepted and is complying with” those principles.

Iran Sanctions Bills Continue to Gain Support

A major AIPAC priority during its conference in early May was to gain maximum congressional support for the various anti-Iran bills, and in this it largely succeeded. This is especially true for the three bills described in previous issues to expand economic sanctions against Iran by amending the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 to include as sanctionable activities aiding in the development of Iran’s petroleum resources or providing or facilitating the export of refined petroleum resources to Iran. S. 908, introduced by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) in April, has gained 27 co-sponsors and now has 58, including Bayh. The similar H.R. 2194, introduced in April by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), has gained 155 co-sponsors and now has 180, including Berman. The less comprehensive H.R. 1985, introduced by Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) in April, has gained seven co-sponsors and now has 33, including Kirk. S. 908 and H.R. 2194 would expand the list of possible sanctions and include a “sense of Congress” section recommending additional actions the U.S. government should take, and urging the imposition of “sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran and any other Iranian bank or financial institution engaged in proliferation activities or support of terrorist groups.”

Also, H.R. 1327, which would “authorize state and local governments to direct divestiture from, and prevent investment in, companies with investments of $20,000,000 or more in Iran’s energy sector,” was placed by Republicans on the House “suspension calendar” (to provide for an immediate vote, with no amendments) for June 9. The Democratic leadership then removed it from the calendar. It is unclear why the Republicans would have taken such an irresponsible step just days before Iran’s election, except perhaps to try to get Democrats to vote against a pro-Israel measure. The bill, introduced in March by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), still could be brought up and passed at any time. It has 185 co-sponsors, including Frank. The similar S. 1065 was introduced in the Senate on May 18 by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) with one co-sponsor.

Two new Iran sanctions bills were introduced in May by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA). H.R. 2290, introduced on May 6 with two co-sponsors, would amend the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INSNA) to include in the president’s nonproliferation report to Congress the identification of foreign persons who “transferred to Iran, Syria, or North Korea goods, services, or technology that could assist efforts to extract or mill uranium ore.” H.R. 2375, introduced on May 12 with five co-sponsors, would require sanctions against “a foreign person or entity that is a representative or affiliate of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

While the comprehensive and punitive H.R. 485–”introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in January to strengthen and toughen both the Iran Sanctions Act and INSNA–”still has no support, her separate bills strengthening sanctions on Iran and Syria, which she introduced in February, continue to gain co-sponsors. H.R. 1208 would amend the Iran Sanctions Act to, among other things, expand the list of sanctionable activities and sanctionable “persons.” It would also prohibit “service module payments to the Russian Aviation and Space Agency.” H.R. 1206 would strengthen sanctions against Syria and “enhance multilateral commitment to address [Syria’s] threatening policies.” H.R. 1208 has gained 11 co-sponsors and now has 104, including Ros-Lehtinen. H.R. 1206 has gained three co-sponsors and now has 77.

Progress on Some Positive Measures

H.Res. 130, introduced in February by Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA), has gained three more co-sponsors and has 105, including Delahunt. It expresses “support for the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace,” and would commit the House to supporting Mitchell, the president and the secretary of state “in their vigorous pursuit of a diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts.”

On June 4 Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), with 14 co-sponsors, introduced H.Res. 11 “commending efforts to teach the history of both Israelis and Palestinians to students in Israel and the West Bank in order to foster mutual understanding, respect and tolerance.” In the same vein, H.R. 1605, introduced in the House in March by Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY), which would urge “the president to establish an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace to support cooperation, peaceful coexistence, joint economic development, and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, and Muslims, Christians, and Jews,” has gained one co-sponsor, and now has five, including Crowley.

H.Con.Res. 94, the positive measure introduced in April by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) regarding Iran, has also gained only one co-sponsor and now has three, including Conyers. It would give “the sense of Congress that it should be the policy of the U.S. to promote the negotiation of an ‘Incidents at Sea Agreement’ between the U.S. and the Government of Iran.”

A New Spirit –” An open letter from Israeli Descendants of the Countries of Islam

We, the daughters and sons of parents who immigrated to Israel from Arab and Muslim countries, hereby express our support for the new spirit presented by president Obama in his Cairo speech. A spirit of reconciliation, realistic vision, striving for justice and dignity, respect for different religions, cultures and human beings, whoever and wherever they are.

We were born in Israel and we are Israelis. Our country is important to us, and we would like to see it secure, just, and prosperous for the benefit of its inhabitants. Yet, the recent conflict into which we were born cannot erase the long history of hundreds and thousands of years, during which our parents and ancestors lived in Muslim and Arab countries. Not only they have lived in the region from time immemorial, but were also part of the fabric of daily life and have contributed to the development of the region and its culture.

Nowadays, the cultures of the lands of Islam, Middle East, and the Arab world, are all still part of our identity; a part which we cannot, and do not wish to repress nor uproot.

Surly, the Jews living in Muslim countries endured some difficult times. Nevertheless, those painful moments should not conceal nor erase the well known and documented history of shared life. Muslim rule over the Jews was much more tolerant and lenient compared with non-Muslim countries. The fate of Jews in Muslim regions cannot be compared with the tragic fate of Jews in other regions, Europe in particular.

We however, prefer to perceive these last decades as a painful yet temporary crack in a history that goes longer than that. We have a shared past and a shared future. Thus, when we look at the map, we see Israel as part of the Middle East, and not solely from a geographical perspective.

Judaism and Islam are not far apart from religious, spiritual, historical and cultural point of views. The alliance between these two religions dates back many generations. Yet the memory of this partnership and the unique history of Jews originated from the Muslim and Arab world (which today constitutes 50% of the Jewish population in Israel!) has unfortunately faded, both in Israel as well as in the majority of the Muslim world. In the necessary reconciliation process between West and East, oriental Jews can and should embody a live bridge of remembrance, healing and partnership.

From our point of view the rift between Israel/Jews and the Arab/Muslim world cannot last forever, it is splitting our identities and our souls. As for the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we hope that a fair solution of mutual respect and mutual recognition will be reached very soon. A solution that considers the hopes, fears and pains of the Palestinian side, as well as those of the Israeli side.

We therefore, express our support for the new spirit set forth by President Obama in Cairo. We wish to join the vision for a future in which bridges of mutual respect and humanity will replace walls of suspicion, aggression and hatred. All this in the spirit of justice and humanism shared by both Judaism and Islam.