Iraq Debate Heating Up
Despite growing pressure on Jewish leaders from congressional Republicans and the White House, a major umbrella group has refused to rush into blanket support for a congressional resolution authorizing war against Iraq.
In what is seen as the first widespread measure of Jewish community sentiment on the issue, the board of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — representing 123 local community relations groups and 13 national agencies — tabled a motion last week calling for support for the administration proposal.
The picture of the Jewish community’s position on a possible war against Iraq could clarify further next week as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations prepares to poll members about draft language on President George W. Bush’s call for sweeping war-making authority.
The JCPA decision came Thursday in a teleconference board meeting. The resolution in question was sponsored by B’nai B’rith, which this week came out with its own strong statement supporting a war powers measure.
In a letter to Bush, B’nai B’rith president Joel Kaplan wrote that “we certainly hope all members of Congress will put aside their differences and support your proposal — doing what is best for the country.”
But that unequivocal approach did not sell to the diverse JCPA leadership, which voted to table the resolution “by an overwhelming margin,” according to longtime JCPA leader Ted Mann, who seconded the tough resolution.
Contradicting some reports of widespread support for unilateral U.S. action, Mann said “the Jewish community is where the rest of the nation seems to be. In reality, opinion is very diverse. I had the sense that you don’t have a vast majority who are convinced that Saddam Hussein represents the kind of immediate danger that others say he does.”
Mann, a founder of the dovish Israel Policy Forum, insisted that he still believes pre-emptive U.S. action is justifiable.
“There’s really only one issue: Is Saddam Hussein out to get us? I have no doubt in my mind that when he develops weapons of mass destruction, he will seek to hurt us with them,” Mann said. “Once one comes to that conclusion it becomes a justifiable war. It’s absurd to allow him to go first.”
But he conceded there is deep unease in the Jewish community on a number of questions, including the potential impact of a new gulf war on Israel and the implications of a new U.S. policy of pre-emption.
Bush is seeking a broadly worded congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq without preconditions. The original draft submitted by the White House authorized military action to “restore international peace and security in the region,” language that some Democrats believe could lead to unilateral U.S. military action throughout the region.
JCPA executive vice-chair Hannah Rosenthal said that “after an hour of hearing from people from all over the country, it was clearly determined that this was a great discussion, but only the beginning of the process.”
There were two issues on which there was broad consensus among member organizations, Rosenthal said. “The first is that there is clearly a threat posed by Saddam Hussein. And there was agreement that there needs to be an effective response to that threat.”
But what that means and what happens after the military action has produced uncertainty, she said. Member agencies “still have too many questions.”
JCPA, which represents a broad spectrum of Jewish opinion, will take up the Iraq question again at its Oct. 14 board meeting. Mann, who supports pre-emptive U.S. action, said he expects the motion will be tabled again.
Other Jewish groups are starting to speak out on the Iraq question.
Last week the Union of American Hebrew Congregations board passed a resolution supporting U.S. action against Iraq, but with conditions — including the need to fully exhaust the diplomatic possibilities and options for serious international cooperation. This followed Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Ismar Schorsch’s statement calling a possible U.S. go-it-alone war against Iraq “a calamitous policy.”
Also, the American Jewish Congress recently issued a statement supporting “the U.S. administration in its stated position to intervene in Iraq to ensure that Iraq is no longer a threat to the security of the United States and the world.”
The American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, the two other “defense organizations,” have not yet announced positions on a use-of-force resolution.
Next week the Presidents Conference will poll member groups on a draft resolution that officials say will back Bush’s war against terrorism. They declined to say if it will specifically endorse the president’s call for sweeping powers.
“It will be supportive of the war against terrorism and the need to deal with the threat posed by Iraq,” said executive vice-chair Malcolm Hoenlein. “Beyond that, I can’t say.”
In a statement, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee said that “we support President Bush’s decision to use force against Iraq and we are confident that Congress and the administration will come up with language for the resolution that will be in the national security interests of the United States.”
B’nai B’rith executive vice-president Dan Mariaschin said that while Jewish leaders have not wanted to be “out front” on Iraq, “we’re now seeing a point of critical mass in this debate. We felt very strongly that now was the time to make our position known with a very strong statement in support of the administration request.”
The B’nai B’rith letter supporting the congressional resolution cited Iraq’s frequent breach of earlier UN resolutions on weapons inspections.
“Above all, Iraq has a history of demonstrated hostility toward the United States, as evidenced by the 1993 assassination attempt on your father, former President Bush,” the group’s leaders wrote in a letter to the current President Bush.
PLO, Jerusalem Provisions Pass
Pro-Israel activists were pleased that Congress has passed a long-delayed State Department authorization bill that includes provisions reaffirming Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital and an early version of a law threatening sanctions on Yasir Arafat if Palestinian terrorism continues.
But they aren’t celebrating, mostly because President Bush has already announced that he will not abide by provisions he regards as an encroachment on presidential prerogatives.
On Thursday the House gave final approval to a bill authorizing $8.6 billion in State Department spending. The legislation includes language requiring the State Department to list Israel as the country of origin on passports, birth certificates and other official documents for U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem, and to cite Jerusalem as Israel’s capital wherever it lists countries and their capitals.
Those provisions have languished in Congress since the mid-1990s.
Another provision reaffirms the congressional demand that the president take immediate action to start the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act required the move by May 31, 1999, but Bush and Bill Clinton, his predecessor, routinely exercised the law’s waiver provisions.
On Monday Bush issued a statement saying that he would not veto the bill, but also that he regarded the controversial provisions as “advisory, not mandatory.
The Jerusalem provision, Bush said, “impermissibly interferes with the president’s constitutional authority to conduct the nation’s foreign affairs.”
A top Jewish leader declined to criticize the administration action on the embassy move.
“The president has promised to do it; it’s a question of timing,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We’ve been disappointed all along that it hasn’t happened, but hopefully as events change it will become feasible to do it.”
The administration also objects to amendments withholding $10 million in economic aid to Lebanon because of its support for Hezbollah terrorists.
The measure also includes the Middle East Peace Commitments Act, which threatens sanctions on the Palestinian Authority if it does not live up to agreements with Israel. Among the possible sanctions: closing the PLO offices in Washington, barring entry to PA officials and putting the PLO on the official State Department list of terrorist groups.
But MEPCA, authored by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-L.I.), has been largely superseded by the tougher “Arafat Accountability Act.”
“MEPCA says that sanctions can be imposed if the president determines the Palestinians are not in compliance,” said a pro-Israel lobbyist. “The Arafat Accountability Act assumes noncompliance, which is certainly a more realistic approach.”
And an even harsher resolution laying out conditions for U.S. acceptance of a Palestinian state is in the works, although there is little chance of passage this session.
Still, Ackerman said Congress is making progress in dealing with Arafat.
“With this legislation we are finally closing the gap between all our tough talk about terrorism and the reality of our heedless engagement with the Palestinians no matter how deeply enmeshed in terror they are,” he said.
Christian Rally For Israel
With U.S.-Israel relations strained over the abortive Israeli siege of Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, Israel could get a political boost from next week’s big “solidarity rally” by Evangelical Christians.
But Jewish and Israeli officials have reacted warily, in part because of concern that the event outside the White House could include harsh criticism of the Bush administration’s Mideast policies.
An Israeli official said only that “we know about” the march. “It would be inaccurate to say we are urging people to attend or are officially supporting it.”
Michael Brown, national church liaison for the Christian Coalition, said he “can understand … the hesitation” of some Jewish leaders to support Evangelical pro-Israel activities. “But I really believe they will be able to see, as time passes, that this isn’t anything but an expression of the love for Israel and the Jewish people.”
He also rejected the charge that many participants support Israel mostly because of the grim role many Christians expect it to play in “end-time” events prophesied in the Christian Bible.
“God will do what God’s going to do,” he said. “There’s nothing the Christian community can do to bring in these events.”
The Oct. 11 rally is part of the Christian Coalition’s biennial “Road to Victory” conference — the highest-profile political gathering of Christian conservatives.
The conference is being cosponsored by Joyce Meyer Ministries. Meyer recently keynoted a “leadership conference” of Christian evangelists in Israel, including Messianic Jews.
Speakers at the rally will include Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. In 1999, Rev. Falwell stirred anger in the Jewish community when he asserted that the “antichrist” — a demonic figure in Christian apocalyptic prophecy — would be a Jewish male.
Israel will be represented by Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and, via satellite, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Planners say they also expect to be addressed by Prime Minster Ariel Sharon, but officials at the Israeli embassy say they have no information about Sharon’s involvement.
So far, the only Jewish leader listed as a speaker is Rabbi Daniel Lapin of the conservative group Toward Tradition.