Home Fires Spurning
by James D. Besser
A year ago, with a new Republican administration coming into office, Jewish groups were arming themselves for political trench warfare over a host of thorny close-to-home issues.
But the war on terrorism and the worsening emergency in Israel have shoved those issues into the deep freeze — so much so that some Jewish activists worry that the community’s interests will not be fully represented as Congress chugs along on the domestic front.
“We are still very involved,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “But we are under no illusions that the local communities can put any real resources into domestic issues.”
Price said a number of issues that could have a big impact on the Jewish community are in the legislative hopper,
including a major welfare reform bill that could affect benefits for immigrants and refugees, and an energy package that has divided Jewish groups on the question of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Also on the congressional agenda: a plan to overhaul the mostly dysfunctional Immigration and Naturalization Service, whose widely reported problems have left many Jewish refugees stranded.
But with Jewish groups pouring resources into the effort to help Israel, scant attention is being paid to the domestic front.
Another Jewish activist worried that broad Jewish support for the president’s war against terrorism could blunt Jewish opposition to elements of his domestic program, including efforts to provide public money to faith-based social service groups.
“Everybody’s pussyfooting around, worried about their access and worried about keeping the administration on track in supporting Israel,” this source said. “There’s a real reluctance to criticize the administration even on domestic issues where its positions are at odds with most of the Jewish community.”
A top congressional analyst said it may not matter too much because there’s little chance anything substantive will be accomplished before lawmakers flee Washington to get down to the year’s really serious business: getting re-elected.
“The only real agenda for the next few months is a four-letter word: pork,” said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. “It’s going to be treif city around here.”
A combination of factors, including an abbreviated congressional calendar and a distracted administration, means that little is likely to get done aside from routine passage of appropriations bills and the usual election-year effort to load them down with pork-barrel projects.
“It’s hard to imagine what kind of legislation will actually get passed,” he said. “On domestic legislation in particular, the cupboard is bare.”
Clinton Dissed, Honored
Bill Clinton may be the Bush administration’s favorite foreign policy punching bag, but he still can raise political money like no one else. This week the former president was scheduled to do that at a Thursday event for the National Jewish Democratic Council, a partisan group that hopes to rake in about $400,000.
About 300 of the group’s high rollers and less well-heeled young leaders were scheduled to hear the former president, who will get the NJDC Hubert H. Humphrey Humanitarian Award.
The group’s machers also will meet with House and Senate Democratic leaders and with many of the party’s 2004 presidential hopefuls, including House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.
The Clinton appearance comes less than a week after the ex-president was dissed by his successor, President George W. Bush, who seemed to blame Clinton’s high-stakes summitry for the new wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Speaking to the British ITV network from his ranch in Texas, Bush said “It wasn’t all that long ago when a summit was called and nothing happened, and as a result we had significant intifada in the area,” referring to Clinton’s much-maligned Camp David summit in 2000.
Bush’s comments came two months after White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer also seemed to blame Clinton’s overreaching at Camp David for the new violence in the region, comments that Fleischer was later forced to retract.
This week Bush scrambled to “clarify” the latest anti-Clinton comments.
“I appreciate what President Clinton tried to do,” Bush said during a press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. “He tried to bring peace to the Middle East. I’m going to try to bring peace to the Middle East.”
But Washington insiders say condemnation of Clinton remains a driving force in the administration’s approach to the Middle East.
Members of Congress are still thinking of ways to weigh in on the worsening Israel-Palestinian crisis and, in many cases, take more shots at Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.
The week’s most creative idea comes from Reps. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Jim Leach (R-Iowa), who proposed that the Bush administration send an emergency negotiating team to the region consisting of three ex-presidents: Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
“We believe that former President Bush, who was responsible for the breakthrough at Madrid, is uniquely positioned to lead this effort,” the hopeful lawmakers wrote. “The participation of Presidents Clinton and Carter, with their remarkable commitment toward Middle East peace, would only enhance the prospect of success.”
Pro-Israel leaders scoffed, pointing out that just last week President George W. Bush disparaged the contributions of Clinton, and that Israeli officials generally regard Carter as one of the least sympathetic presidents in recent history.
“It’s the dumbest idea to come down the pike since Jimmy Carter called [the late Syrian President Hafez) Assad his best friend in the Middle East,” said a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist.
But the letter was garnering some interest from lawmakers who were frustrated about the apparent lack of progress of U.S. peacemaking efforts.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens), sponsor of a measure to impose sanctions on the Palestinian Authority if it doesn’t succeed in curbing terrorism, this week circulated copies of captured PA documents that he said offered “indisputable proof of the Palestinian leadership’s direct involvement in terrorism against Israeli citizens.”
The House, returning from a 17-day spring break, will take up Ackerman’s Middle East Peace Commitments Act in the next few weeks. But it faces strong opposition from the Bush administration, which insists it will limit the president’s diplomatic flexibility.
On Tuesday Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution expressing solidarity with Israel “as it takes necessary steps to provide security for its people by dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in Palestinian areas.”
The nonbinding resolution also calls on all Arab and Muslim states, and “particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” to condemn all forms of terrorism, including suicide bombings.
Pro-Israel lawmakers mostly were quiet about Secretary of State Colin Powell’s trip to the region, which began with a diplomatic snub in Morocco on Monday. But Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester), who had publicly called for Powell to mount a diplomatic rescue mission, praised the decision to send him.
Lowey said she had been “frustrated by the U.S.’s lack of involvement in pursuit of intense negotiations,” and the high-stakes diplomatic trip “will demonstrate that the administration now understands that we cannot tolerate terrorism no matter where it occurs.” n