They Doth Protest Too Much?
Israeli officials were working overtime this week to preempt Yasir Arafat’s scheduled appearance at a Washington prayer breakfast, and to shift the focus of his meeting with President Bill Clinton to the question of Palestinian compliance.
But the strong Israeli counteroffensive, which included visits this week by emissaries of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, may have turned a minor event into a major international platform for the head of the Palestinian Authority.
“For Netanyahu, it’s critical for him to say he’s taking the lead in opposing a Palestinian state,” said Dr. Stephen Cohen, a consultant for the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. “The strong reaction against Arafat’s appearance is very much intended for domestic political consumption.”
Originally, Cohen said, Arafat’s attendance
at the congressional prayer breakfast and the planned short meeting with Clinton “would have been a normal, low-key event. Instead, it has grown out of proportion because of the opposition.”
That opposition included strong statements by a number of Israeli officials. One said Arafat’s visit was being “turned into a love fest between the PLO and Congress.”
Israeli officials confirm that Gen. Meir Dagan, the prime minister’s anti-terrorism adviser, and Tomar Orni, an aide to Sharon, were in town over the weekend, talking about Netanyahu’s claim that the Palestinian Authority has blatantly disregarded its obligations under the October Wye River agreement.
The two emissaries also repeated charges that the PA has released a number of Palestinians accused of murdering Americans.
Israel newspapers reported that CIA officials in the region were disputing the charges, and on Tuesday the State Department spokesman said an investigation confirmed that view.
“We have checked into this thoroughly, and we have not seen any evidence that would confirm the charges that the individuals released were involved in the killing of Americans,” said spokesman James Rubin. “Those charges, so far as we can tell, are simply not proven by any evidence.”
Several hawkish legislators protested Arafat’s invitation to the prayer breakfast, which was expected to draw more than 3,500 to a Washington hotel. The Traditional Values Coalition, a leading Christian right group, has decided to boycott the event, even though the official host, Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), is a favorite of the religious conservatives.
The Zionist Organization of America promised a demonstration in front of the hotel.
Holocaust Museum Search Narrows
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, without a director for almost a year, is getting closer to finding a replacement for former director Walter Reich.
Next week, the search committee charged with hiring a new director will begin interviewing a short list of six candidates. Included are Sara Bloomfield, the respected interim director; Stan Turesky, the Museum’s congressional liaison; and Dr. Wesley Fisher, the new director of international relations.
The list also includes a former member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, Bob Horn, a Washington-based official for Detroit Edison.
Museum sources say Bloomfield, who has been running the Museum for almost a year, is a strong frontrunner and that a decision could be made as early as the end of the month — although they warned that Museum personnel matters are always unpredictable.
Budget Battle Opens
The Clinton administration is actively courting help from Jewish groups in winning congressional approval of key elements of the president’s FY 2000 budget, which was unveiled on Monday.
They’ll need it: the $1.7 trillion proposal, a veritable wish-list for advocates of strong health, education and social service programs, faces tough-going in Congress, where GOP pressure for big tax cuts is growing.
Most Jewish groups support the outlines of the president’s proposal, but warn that a final budget package will look very different.
“There weren’t any real surprises in the president’s proposal,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “Some parts of the administration plan may be passed — and other parts will be very difficult. The administration has thrown down the gauntlet on the surplus: do we have a tax cut, or better programs and a fix for Social Security? It will be a monumental battle.”
Making things more complex is the fact that spending caps imposed by the 1997 balanced budget agreement mean that the increases Clinton is proposing must be offset by new taxes or cuts in other programs.
“The programs our community cares about have already been cut to the bone, so this debate will be critical,” Price said. “So we will have to watch very closely where the money for these new initiatives comes from.”
The administration proposal would spend billions to expand health care coverage for people with disabilities and those who work for small businesses. The White House is also seeking modest tax credits for people who care for elderly or sick relatives and for stay-at-home parents.
The president wants to restore some of the benefits for legal immigrants cut by the 1996 welfare reform law, but the proposal includes only a small increase in funding for refugee resettlement — a major disappointment for Jewish groups.
Clinton is also proposing almost $5 billion more for education and $12 billion more for the Pentagon — although some of that money is coming from fancy bookkeeping, not new expenditures. The administration will be looking to Jewish groups and other well-organized constituencies for support as the battle begins.
“This is just the opening salvo,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director for the Religious Action Center. “The debate about the budget is really hundreds of smaller debates. We’ll be looking at our priorities and deciding which of them we will be involved in.”
You Say Potato, I Say Potatoe
There’s no evidence yet that his spelling has improved, but supporters of former Vice President Dan Quayle are convinced he’s learned enough politics to be a real contender in the 2000 presidential sweepstakes.
And there are indications the former Indiana senator is planning an active campaign for Jewish Republicans. Later this month, Quayle will spend several days with leaders of the National Jewish Coalition at their annual leadership retreat in Aspen, Colo.
“He was one of the shining stars of the Bush administration for our community, one of the ‘go to’ guys when the community needed something,” said Matthew Brooks, the NJC executive director. “There’s a lot of good will for him among Jewish Republicans, and his campaign will obviously try to leverage that.”
But there’s also the fear that Dan Quayle is …, well, Dan Quayle — a less than stellar speaker with a penchant for verbal gaffes, another Jewish Republican said.
Quayle will face stiff competition. Texas governor George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are also making moves to win Jewish support, and party activists report a surge of interest in former Red Cross president Elizabeth Dole.
“She’s the one Republican who scares us,” said a Jewish Democrat. “In our community, she could be a real draw.”
Bibi Attacks Washington Consultant
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has officially taken over the investigation into two break-ins at the Washington offices of a prominent Democratic pollster who is also working for Ehud Barak, the Labor party’s candidate for prime minister.
Law enforcement officials continue to say the firm of Greenberg Quinlan Research Inc. may have been targeted because of its work for Barak — but the theory that this was an Israeli Watergate is just one of several scenarios under consideration.
Initially, the FBI entered the case in an advisory capacity, but indications that stolen property may have been carried across state lines — and the obvious political sensitivity of the case — resulted in the decision to give the feds primary jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stepped up his attacks on another political consultant on Barak’s payroll — Steve Rabinowitz, a former Clinton administration official who now runs a media and political consulting firm here.
In a recent interview on Israeli radio, Netanyahu said that accusations that Likud was behind the Greenberg break-ins were a slur by Labor agents in Washington.
“They got some spokesperson to do their dirty work for them in Washington,” he said. “They don’t do it themselves, but have someone to do it for them — and he does a good job, too: Mr. Rabinowitz.”
Rabinowitz, like any good political consultant, turned the charges back on his accuser.
“The fact that the prime minister is attacking me instead of saving his energies for Ehud Barak is flattering. And as someone involved in Barak’s campaign, it’s encouraging.”
Rabinowitz insisted he never pointed a finger at Netanyahu or his party.
“After the first break-in we said we hoped it was just a coincidence of timing,” he said. “After the second, it was obvious that it was motivated by political opposition to Barak, but we’ve been very careful not to point fingers at any individual or party.”