As newly minted U.S. Mideast Envoy George Mitchell begins his first swing through a seething region, pro-Israel forces are waiting for early signals about how the Obama administration will deal with Jewish settlements and settlement outposts on the West Bank.
And while the new administration is likely to put off any sweeping new peace initiatives, it may have little choice but to address the perennially explosive issue quickly and decisively as part of President Barack Obama’s goal of restoring U.S. credibility in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
“They have to speak out, especially on the illegal settlements the Israelis have promised on several occasions they would remove,” said Seymour Reich, a former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and, more recently, of the Israel Policy Forum.
Reich said the only real question is whether Mitchell and his new White House boss will weigh in before or after the Feb. 10 elections in Israel, the outcome of which could determine how likely the settlements question is to spark a sharp U.S.-Israel confrontation.
Settlements are just one of a handful of foreign and domestic issues likely to surface in the days and weeks ahead that could serve as bellwethers of how the new administration and Congress plan to turn promises into policy in a crisis-filled 100 days. Here are a few.
Opposition to Jewish settlements has been a constant in U.S. policy, but administrations have expressed their concerns in different ways.
The George H.W. Bush administration, with an unfriendly James Baker III heading the State Department, chose a policy of public confrontation. Bill Clinton tried both public and private persuasion, with limited results. George W. Bush, who also opposed settlement expansion, generally registered his disapproval quietly and privately.
Pro-peace process groups hope Mitchell, who authored a 2001 report demanding a settlement freeze along with an end to Palestinian terrorism, will deal with the issue early in his tenure, and some observers say the administration may have no choice.
California State University political science professor Raphael Sonenshein said that while administration officials will “be intent on not being ‘evenhanded,” they will have to “ask something of Israel” if they hope to get the peace process moving.
That “something” could be the removal of illegal outposts and a settlement freeze.
“They cannot ask Israel not to defend itself, as in Gaza, but on an issue that divides Israelis — like settlements — there may be a basis for a conversation,” Sonenshein said.
But some Jewish leaders warn that too strong a focus on settlements could undercut support for any Obama administration initiatives in the region and trigger a backlash from major pro-Israel groups here.
“I don’t think they’ll do it, or that they should do it,” said a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist who was not authorized to speak on the record. “It might make sense if there was any real opportunity for new peace negotiations, but almost nobody believes that’s the case. And they have to be especially careful before the Israeli elections; the last thing they want is to be seen as trying to impact the vote by hinting there could be a big clash over settlements if Bibi [Netanyahu] is elected.”
2. Durban II
Another potentially revealing test involves an upcoming international human rights conference.
The Durban Review Conference, scheduled for April, is the follow-up to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, a gathering that turned into an orgy of anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic invective.
“President Obama said during the campaign that if it turns out the review conference will engage in a reprise of 2001, the United States will not participate,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “The question now is this: does the administration believe there’s some value in trying to turn it around? Or do they simply say it’s gone too far and that there’s no real point in participating?”
But Obama also pledged to work more closely with UN agencies than his predecessor did, as part of his shift to a more multilateral foreign policy. How he balances that goal with concerns about the UN’s skewed treatment of Israel is being closely watched by Jewish leaders as an indicator of his overall approach to international conflicts, Hordes said.
Last week the ADL called on “responsible nations to withdraw from further participation” in the event as signs mount that anti-Israel forces plan to stage a rerun of Durban I.
3. FMAP And Medicaid
At home, the new administration and Congress are hammering out huge, risky economic stimulus and financial bailout plans that many believe are essential to prevent economic catastrophe. Many Jewish leaders are watching closely to see if they can do that while also protecting and bolstering health and human services programs that face soaring demand as the effects of the recession spread.
William Daroff, public policy director for the United Jewish Communities, said a tip-off as to how Washington will achieve that balance is the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, a formula that determines how much federal money states get to cope with soaring health care costs and the growing demand for services.
A temporary increase in FMAP reimbursement is part of the House stimulus package; if passed, it would provide an extra $9.75 billion to New York alone in increased Medicaid payments, according to Gov. David Paterson’s office.
Increasing FMAP is even more critical because most states face a perfect storm of plummeting revenues, soaring demand for services and constitutional balanced-budget requirements. Unlike the federal government, they can’t simply print money to make up for shortfalls.
The Obama administration has not weighed in with a specific number, “but everything we’re hearing from them is good,” Daroff said.
But getting a big increase through the Senate could be tough, especially when lawmakers confront budget numbers skewed by unprecedented bailouts and plummeting government revenues.
The danger, Jewish leaders worry, is that the mundane-sounding FMAP increase could get lost in the congressional budget panic and tough negotiations with the White House.
Daroff said FMAP is a bellwether issue because it “is a means of directly assisting those who are on the front lines of the economic catastrophe.” How Congress and the administration react to the crushing budget and political pressures they face will reveal much about how actively they will address the problems faced by countless elderly Americans, not just threatened industries, he said.
4. Hate Crimes
Will the new administration plunge into risky gay rights controversies during its first 100 days? A number of mainstream Jewish groups hope it will, because that may be the only way to pass a new hate crimes law they regard as a top priority.
The proposed law, supported by broad huge coalition of law enforcement, civil rights and gay rights groups, would expand the scope of existing federal statutes to cover crimes based on the gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disabilities of victims, and provide officials new tools to combat violent, bias-motivated crimes.
“It’s not a ‘gay rights’ bill, but it does have sexual orientation and gender identity in it,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the ADL, one of the bill’s most active backers. “It will be an important indicator, because it is the first social equality issue the new administration will face.”
The measure has passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan majorities, but faced the certainty of a Bush veto. With Obama in the White House, that certainty is removed, but the question is: will Congress and the administration push for quick passage despite a crushing weight of other priorities and despite the ferocious opposition of groups opposed to expanded gay rights?
5. Public FundingFor Religious Schools
During the campaign, Obama signaled a surprising — for a Democrat — interest in continuing much of the Bush administration’s faith-based programming. That was good news for Orthodox groups and a nagging concern for liberal Jewish organizations.
But Congress doesn’t seem to be on the same page. The Democratic stimulus package includes $14 billion for “green schools” initiatives intended both to create jobs and to lay the foundation for a more energy-efficient future, but the proposal excludes parochial and other non-public schools.
“The exclusion came from Congress,” said Orthodox Union Public Policy Director Nathan Diament. “We don’t know yet where the administration is on this, even though we have had conversations with senior members.”
If the White House demands that religious schools be included, it would be a “strong indicator the Obama administration is interested in pursuing the ‘new politics’” Diament said — and that the president is serious about a greater openness to faith-based funding.
Church-state advocates see it differently and plan to support the exclusion.
“We believe it’s the job of the government to build, maintain and support public schools; it’s the job of the religious community to build, maintain and support parochial schools,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Talking about helping religious schools upgrade facilities “would be appropriate only after every public school in the country has been modernized.”