The peace process may be in limbo until incoming Prime Minister Ehud Barak forms his government and sets some policy, but that hasn’t stopped Congress from huffing and puffing on Mideast issues.
Resolutions have recently been introduced in both Houses demanding the extradition of Palestinians accused of killing Americans.
According to the Zionist Organization of America, which generated the congressional action, most of the 23 Palestinians accused by Israel of involvement in attacks against Americans are free in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and five are on the PA police force.
A House measure sponsored by Rep. Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.) and others as well as a Senate version sponsored by Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) would force the State Department to submit regular
reports on U.S. investigations into the killings and on efforts to bring the killers to trial here.
But most mainstream pro-Israel groups are not pushing the legislation, preferring instead to wait for signals from the incoming Israeli government.
The question of Palestinian killers has also roiled diplomatic relations between the administration and the outgoing government in Jerusalem.
In a recent interview in the Israeli press, Netanyahu adviser David Bar-Illan accused the administration of foot dragging on the issue. Not so, said Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk in a heated exchange with Israeli ambassador Zalman Shoval last week. Indyk said that Justice Department officials are actively pursuing several cases, and demanded a retraction by Bar-Illan.
Schumer is also sponsoring a resolution condemning Palestinian efforts to revive U.N. Resolution 181 as the basis for negotiations with Israel and condemning the United Nations Commission on Human Rights for its resolution endorsing Palestinian self-determination on the basis of the original Palestine partition plan.
And Senate jockeying continues over legislation to deal with the administration’s refusal to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A 1995 law required the transfer by May 31. A presidential waiver was expected this week.
When it comes, Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) is ready with legislation that would revise the original Jerusalem Embassy Act, putting off the deadline for moving the embassy by six months or a year — but also stripping away presidential waiver authority, setting the stage for a major showdown between the executive and legislative branches.
Last week the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) weighed in. The group expressed an “unshakable” belief in Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s eternal capital, but cited “understandable reasons” for not forcing a decision “at this precise movement.”
Among those reasons: Washington’s critical role as a “trusted partner” as the negotiations move on to final status issues, including the status of Jerusalem.
Several small, symbolic Jerusalem provisions are part of the State Department Authorization bill, as well, including a measure requiring that U.S. passports issued to citizens born in Jerusalem include the words “Jerusalem, Israel,” not just the name of the city.
State Department officials are worried about the impact of the measures on sensitive Israel-Palestinian negotiations — but not too worried, since authorization bills almost never pass.
Supreme Court Revisiting School Case
Jewish groups are choosing sides as the Supreme Court takes up a case that could clarify the increasingly murky body of law dealing with government aid to parochial schools — or just add to the confusion.
The 12-year-old case, Mitchell v. Helms, involves the Title 6 program, which provides funds for library materials, computers and other educational equipment for both public and parochial schools.
Ironically, the administration is defending the constitutionality of the program even though the Department of Education has tried to “zero out” the Title 6 program in recent years. But now, officials here want to use the program as part of their effort to hook every classroom in the nation up to the Internet.
Past rulings have been contradictory. A Louisiana Circuit Court termed it unconstitutional on church-state grounds, but another court ruled in the opposite direction.
Marc Stern, legal director for the American Jewish Congress, said his group “will support continued restrictions on aid to parochial schools. Exactly where we draw the line remains to be worked out.”
He said it is unclear how broad the decision might be. “It may just be that they have dueling decisions about what federal law requires, and that they will try to resolve it,” he said. “But it’s also possible they will, in fact, do a substantial revision of the laws on aid to public schools.”
And that would be bad news for groups determined to shore up the church-state line, he said. At the very least, according to Stern, the decision is likely to “be significant in deciding what the states can do in terms of new technologies in the schools. What, for instance, is the state’s responsibility to help parochial schools provide the Internet and computers?”
Agudath Israel of America is hoping for a different outcome.
The case “will give the Supreme Court the opportunity to revisit an issue they addressed last in the 1970s,” said David Zwiebel, the group’s executive vice president for governmental and public affairs. “There has been a lot of change in jurisprudence since then. I believe the Court will take a more generous view of the constitutionality of these forms of assistance.”
The Title 6 program is particularly important for Jewish parochial schools, Zwiebel said.
The resulting decision, he said, could bring clarity to an increasingly confused church-state legal landscape.
“Right now we have a crazy quilt hodgepodge of some programs that are deemed constitutionally acceptable, others that are not. This case could bring some order to that — or create even more of a mess. You never know.”
Briefs are due at the end of summer — effectively wrecking vacation plans for a number of Jewish activists. The case will probably be argued in November or December, and a decision is expected a year from now.
Low Point For Christian Coalition?
The Christian Coalition is having a very bad year, but don’t start saying Kaddish over the religious right group.
Last week’s Internal Revenue Service denied the 1.8-million member group tax-free status after a 10-year fight.
Almost immediately, the group reorganized in an attempt to continue both its political and religious roles.
The longstanding controversy centered on the organization’s highly public political activities, especially the voter guides distributed at thousands of churches — guides that critics say reflect an overwhelmingly Republican bias.
Under the reorganization plan, the group will split in two, The Christian Coalition International will not be tax exempt. It will “have the freedom to endorse political candidates on a state and local level, make financial contributions to candidates or engage in such other activities as are permissible to all businesses,” according to a Coalition statement.
The other group — the Christian Coalition of America — will absorb the current Christian Coalition of Texas, which is tax exempt. That group will “become the principle vehicle for the operation of the Christian Coalition in the United States.”
The shakeup comes on top of growing money woes for the big group and personnel turmoil. Recently the organization announced that founder Pat Robertson, the televangelist and onetime GOP presidential contender, would resume day-to-day management of the Coalition.
Jewish groups that have locked horns with the group were pleased with the IRS ruling, but they warned against counting the Coalition out.
“It’s hard to escape the feeling that the IRS announcement is a low point in a year of low points for the Christian Coalition,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “From all accounts they’re losing members, losing influence and they appear to be foundering organizationally.”
But the overhauled organization could be more effective, he said, and the renewed involvement of Robertson could be a plus.
“He has always been the personification of the Christian Coalition,” he said. “And he is a very effective spokesman. He is very effective at fund raising.”
Less clear is the impact the IRS decision will have on the churches that distribute up to 80 million Coalition voter guides. Jewish activists say now that the Coalition has come out of the closet as a partisan group, many pastors may be reluctant to jeopardize their own tax-exempt status by distributing them.
Jewish leaders say the IRS ruling probably has few implications for their own groups, some of which publish voter guides but which provide at least a veneer of bipartisanship and objectivity in the publications.
Hillary Trip Canceled
White House insiders aren’t saying when Hillary Clinton will be traveling to Israel and Jordan, now that her June 23 trip has been scrubbed because of the political uncertainty in Israel.
Clinton, an all-but-announced candidate for the Senate from New York, was originally scheduled to visit early in the year, but that trip was postponed because of the impending election in Israel and because the administration wanted to keep well clear of outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After Ehud Barak’s victory in May, the visit was quickly rescheduled. But Barak’s victory has yet to be consummated. The lack of a new government at the time of her trip means Clinton would have been welcomed by Netanyahu, a prospect the State Department didn’t relish.
“Because Israel is still in the process of forming a government, a visit at this time would be inappropriate,” her spokesman said. “A new date will be set as soon as possible.”
But State Department officials would just as soon see it put off indefinitely. Clinton’s presence in Israel, they worry, would touch off barrages of questions about her views on Palestinian statehood at a time when that issue is still very much up in the air, with Palestinian sources saying a declaration could come this year.