Indigestion At Prayer Breakfast
Next week’s 47th annual congressional prayer breakfast in Washington is expected to attract upwards of 3,600 participants — and more than its usual share of controversy. One reason: the apparent inclusion of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat on the guest list. Congressional planners of the event refuse to disclose foreign dignitaries who were invited — a list that reportedly includes Arafat, Syrian President Hafez Assad and the foreign minister of Sudan — but administration officials say Arafat will attend.
Israeli officials won’t. None were invited, Israeli officials said on Tuesday.
The Arafat invitation sparked protests from right-of-center pro-Israel groups and from Stephen M. Flatow, whose daughter, Alisa, was killed by terrorists in territory controlled by Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.
“An invitation to a prestigious event such as the National Prayer Breakfast
will bestow on Mr. Arafat a degree of legitimacy and credibility he has not earned,” Flatow wrote in a letter to Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), the official host of the event.
But early this week the gathering took on considerable diplomatic significance when it appeared likely President Bill Clinton, who will also attend, will use the breakfast for a private meeting with the Palestinian leader.
Administration sources confirm that a meeting is likely — probably at the Washington Hilton, where the prayer breakfast is taking place, not the White House.
A top item on the agenda: continuing U.S. pleas to Arafat to defer plans to declare statehood on May 4, and Arafat’s demand for some kind of U.S. recognition of statehood if he agrees.
Administration officials insist that recognition before statehood arrangements are worked out between Israel and the Palestinians would constitute intrusion in the “final status” negotiations. But officials here say some kind of formulation recognizing Palestinian aspirations without promising official recognition is possible as a way of averting a May 4 explosion.
At the very least, officials here hope to clarify the contradictory statements coming from Gaza about Arafat’s statehood plans.
There were also concerns about the overtly Christian tone of the gathering — although several observers pointed out that it is not an official congressional function, and that it has always been strongly Christian in character.
“We get the invitation every year and just throw it out,” said a staffer for a Jewish member of the House. “It’s fine if they want to do their Christian prayers. We just don’t especially want to be part of it.”
Invitations for the “nondenominational” event include lines such as this: “As a natural outgrowth of such gatherings, many people throughout the world are finding through the spirit of Jesus a fellowship that is helping to build true community in the family of nations.”
A spokesman for Largent said that “the purpose is to talk about Jesus.”
Concerns About Hussein
Administration officials watched with concern this week as Jordan’s King Hussein deposed his brother as his designated successor — and then with consternation as the king rushed back to the Mayo Clinic amid reports that his cancer had reappeared.
On Monday, Hussein surprised most observers by naming his eldest son, Abdullah, as crown prince, replacing former Crown Prince Hassan. According to some reports, Hassan had overreached his authority during the six months in which he ran the country while the king was undergoing treatment in Minnesota.
Officials in Washington did not comment on the succession question or on Hussein’s latest medical emergency, but there was palpable anxiety about what could unfold if the king dies — including the possibility of social and political disintegration.
“He is a unique individual,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “He’s made his share of mistakes. One should not deify him. But on balance, he has been an extraordinary force for balance and stability in the region.”
Replicating those personal qualities, he said, will not be easy under the best of circumstances.
“For the administration, there’s a feeling that no matter who succeeds the king, all would in principle be committed to pursuing the same policies and the same alliances,” said Henry Siegman, director of the Mideast program of the Council on Foreign Relations. “But the real question is who is most capable of doing that, and the answer is not at all not clear.”
The stability of Jordan, he said, rests on the continued loyalty of the non-Palestinian population. Abdullah, a career military officer, will command the loyalty of the army — but it’s not clear if he will retain the support of a divided population, a top concern for policymakers in Washington as well as Jerusalem.
Albright On Russian Anti-Semitism
This week’s Moscow visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright resulted in some tough talk on two issues that preoccupy Jewish leaders here — surging anti-Semitism and that nation’s alleged aid to Iranian weapons builders.
Albright raised both issues in meetings with Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on Monday.
“I have come to pursue cooperation where I can, and to understand better the disagreements we do have,” she said at a Monday gathering of human rights advocates.
Before her departure from Washington, Albright met with a group of Jewish officials under the leadership of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. NCSJ and the Anti-Defamation League presented her with a “white paper” documenting the recent rise of political anti-Semitism in Russia and laying out recommendations for the government in Moscow — including the enactment of new laws against hate crime and hate speech, as well as better implementation of existing laws against incitement.
“We were impressed with the depth of her understanding of the issue and how it plays into the overall U.S.-Israel relationship,” said NCSJ’s Mark Levin. “She acknowledged that the U.S.-Russia relationship is going through hard times for many different reasons. What’s happening with anti-Semitism doesn’t help matters.”
Good News On Immigrant Benefits?
This week the Clinton administration took one more step in reversing some of the damage done by the 1996 Welfare Reform law with a plan to restore some $1.3 billion in benefits to legal immigrants, one of the groups hit hardest by the controversial measure.
The plan was announced by Vice President Al Gore. With the presidential primaries only a year away, Gore is quickly becoming the administration’s chief largess-dispenser.
“Let us remember that here in America, as Franklin Roosevelt once reminded us, we are all descended from immigrants,” Gore said this week. “We have an obligation to extend the full promise of America to those who have legally entered its gates.”
Last year, Congress restored disability and health benefits to 420,000 legal immigrants who were in this country before August, 1996, when the welfare law was passed; the new proposal would restore eligibility for those who entered after that date, as long as they have been in the country for five years and became disabled after that date.
The proposal would also restore some of the Food Stamp benefits cut under the 1996 law, and expand the number of immigrant children who may be covered under state health plans. Gore also announced a proposal for $70 million to help states provide English language proficiency instruction.
Only one hitch: Congress must approve the increases in the midst of a major wangle over tax cuts and an expensive Social Security fix.
The legal immigrant fixes will help some Jews from the former Soviet Union, although most enter this country as refugees.
“The administration is making a serious effort to correct the situation created by the 1996 law,” said Diana Aviv, Washington director for the Council of Jewish Federations.
Bad News On Refugee Numbers
But the news isn’t as good on the refugee front.
According to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the U.S. refugee ceiling has declined 41 percent since President Bill Clinton took office in 1993.
In part, the decline is a matter of funding, said HIAS executive vice-president Leonard Glickman. “But we’re also alarmed over indications that the administration may be getting signals from Capitol Hill that they want to see the numbers decline — especially in the larger programs.”
The two biggest programs serve refugees from Indochina — and the former Soviet Union.
In the Senate, some key lawmakers, led by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), have pushed for higher numbers. But the situation in the House is less certain. Key Republican lawmakers do not favor reversing the downward trend.
Overall, Glickman said, the refugee quotas may be adequate for the former Soviet Union — for now. But a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism in that country could change that.
HIAS also argues that the system for setting refugee ceilings is wrong. Under current law, the president sets ceilings after consultations with nongovernmental organizations and Congress. But in recent years, the ceilings have been tacitly set in the administration’s budget re