With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heading back to the Middle East and rifts developing between Washington and its European allies over diplomacy with the new Palestinian unity government, Congress appears determined to hold the line on limiting aid to a Palestinian Authority still dominated by terrorists.
But many lawmakers also appear nervous about attempts to shut down all contacts with the new government.
That was the subject of a political tempest surrounding a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by two pro-Israel senators.
Senators John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) circulated a letter last week urging Rice to maintain and expand sanctions against the Palesztinian Authority, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — the pro-Israel lobby — pulled out all the stops in urging other lawmakers to sign on.
The letter noted new American attempts to “reinvigorate the peace process,” and warned that such efforts must not deviate from the three demands imposed on the Palestinian Authority by the international Quartet as a precondition of resumed aid: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, renouncing terrorism, and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
But Ensign and Nelson went further, urging Rice to insist on “no direct aid and no contacts with any members” of a Palestinian Authority that does not meet international conditions.
That, according to groups like Americans for Peace Now, would have barred official contacts even with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, a major change in U.S. policy in the region.
APN, backed by Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, activated its political network and urged senators not to sign the Ensign-Nelson letter; delegates to last week’s AIPAC policy conference supported the letter during their March 13 congressional visits.
But when APN brought the controversial language to the attention of key Senate staffers, “there was a lot of concern that this letter went further than current U.S. policy,” said a top congressional source. “The letter attempted to get members on record before the situation was clarified, before briefings by the State Department, before hearings.”
This aide described the controversial phrase as a “preemptive strike” that made many lawmakers “nervous.”
This week the letter’s authors agreed to change that language; the new letter urges Rice only to “maintain current U.S. policy with respect to the Palestinian government until it recognizes Israel’s right to exist, renounce terror, and accept previous agreements.”
Nelson staffers, in a memo to other Senate offices, indicated that the changes were meant to “clear up any misperception concerning a change in U.S. policy. The letter reaffirms and urges maintaining current U.S. policy with respect to the Palestinian government.”
AIPAC officials denied that the original letter called for ending contacts with Abbas.
House letter warns EU
Also circulating in the House: a letter urging the Europeans to stick to the demand that the Palestinian Authority meet certain conditions before economic aid is resumed.
The letter, which had gathered almost 100 signatures by the weekend, was authored by Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), Gary Ackerman (D-NY), and Mike Pence (R-Ind.), among others.
That comes as some European leaders say they may resume contacts with the new Palestinian “unity” government while still withholding aid.
“We have deep reservations and ongoing concerns about the intentions of a government led by a hostile Hamas which rejects the basic premise under which diplomatic relations could be concluded and remains committed to the destruction of Israel,” the lawmakers wrote.
Concerns arise on Iran
Last week a group of Jewish legislators successfully blocked language in an Iraq war-appropriations bill that would have required the administration to get congressional authorization before using military force against Iran.
But the issue is far from dead, as antiwar lawmakers worry that President Bush, bogged down in Iraq, may be planning military action against Iran as well.
Last week’s action involved a Democratic amendment to an emergency spending bill for the Iraq war. That amendment would have required a U.S. pullout from Iraq by next year, a compromise measure that enjoys strong support from the House Democratic Caucus.
Partly to attract liberals angry that the Iraq amendment didn’t go further and partly because of concerns that the administration might be ill prepared for another war, some Democrats wanted to add language requiring specific congressional authorization before any military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Responding to pressure from some pro-Israel Democrats who said the provision would tie the administration’s hands and send the wrong message to Tehran, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chair of the Appropriations Committee, barred the Iran language from the Iraq amendment.
But Pelosi has reportedly promised supporters of the provision that she will allow its introduction as a separate bill.
Some opponents said they would continue to fight what they say would be a dangerous message to leaders in Tehran.
“I do feel any president needs to come to Congress before any sustained military action,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who first raised objections to the Iran provision. “But there are instances where a president needs the flexibility to react.”
Engel said the administration is “doing the right thing” by focusing on sanctions and international pressure in its response to Iran, but added that such nonmilitary tactics lose their power if Congress limits the administration’s authority to use force.
“If you take the credible threat of force off the table, it gives Iran less incentive to negotiate,” he said.
Engel said that adding the Iran language was just a sop to liberal lawmakers who were unhappy that the Democratic Iraq package did not go far enough in limiting the administration’s ability to continue the war in Iraq.
Engel conceded that the Bush administration’s performance in Iraq does not bode well for any Iran attack, but said that “what worries me more than that is a nuclear Iran. Having a nuclear Iran is simply unacceptable; I hope the international community will understand that.”
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) also opposed the Iran provision, arguing that it could have doomed the Democratic package aimed at ending the Iraq conflict.
“Including that provision brought us none of the liberals who want to get out Iraq immediately, but it risked losing the conservatives,” he said. “So it wasn’t going to work.”
And he said the provision was irrelevant because “our position is that the Constitution already says that the administration would have to come to Congress” before attacking Iran.
But Ackerman, too, said that maintaining the threat of military action is necessary to give the diplomatic and economic strategy a chance of success.
New antiwar group has plan
Most Jewish groups are in hiding as the debate over the Iraq war rages in Congress — a silence that has spurred the creation of a new Jewish antiwar group dedicated to “ending the Iraq war and preventing one with Iran.”
Leaders of Jews Against the War say that they, not major Jewish organizations that have refused to speak out, reflect the views of a community that is overwhelmingly opposed to current U.S. policy.
In a statement announcing the group, Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in California and a leader of the left-of-center Tikkun Community, said that many pulpit rabbis refuse to speak up out of fear of being divisive.
“But, like the prophets of Israel, I can no longer take the ‘safe’ road,” he said. “This war is wrong and it needs to end. Our country’s moral voice in the world has vanished under the weight of torture, secret tribunals, and occupation; our beloved Israel is in greater danger now, with Iran emboldened; and our nation’s budget has been sacked.”
Aryeh Cohen, a professor of rabbinic literature at the University of Judaism, said in an interview that the group plans to lobby Congress, organize “vigils and protests” at synagogues, and orchestrate antiwar letters by rabbis and other Jewish leaders.
He said some Jews concerned about the war have been turned off by antiwar groups like International ANSWER with a strongly anti-Israel agenda.
“The ANSWER coalition is problematic — but it doesn’t define the antiwar movement,” he said. “The reason we are starting this organization is to articulate our own message. We do know that there is a very strong antiwar sentiment in the Jewish community that is not being reflected by the community’s leadership.”
He praised the Union for Reform Judaism, the only major Jewish group to publicly challenge administration policy, as “ahead of the game,” but said many Jews “don’t even know the Reform movement made a statement. There is some organizing going on, but not for stakeholders at the center of the community. There needs to be a vehicle for lay leaders whose voices on Iraq are not being heard.”
He blasted Jewish lawmakers who acted last week to keep a provision requiring congressional approval before any attack on Iran out of an amendment laying out a Democratic plan for ending the Iraq war.
“The Jewish congressmen are held hostage to what they think the American Jewish community’s position is on relating to Israel,” he said. “And they are misguided.”