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Hoyer’s nuances and Reagan’s 11th commandment

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One hallmark of AIPAC policy conferences is the bringing together of Republican and Democratic antagonists to show support for Israel. It’s the "We may disagree on everything else" moment.

This AIPAC conference is no different. There was plenty of it Monday evening when Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) spoke, and at lunch, when Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House majority leader, joined Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip. Hoyer and Cantor have initiated a "keep our differences with Israel quiet" letter to the administration, and AIPAC activists will lobby this afternoon for signatories.

Ami watched the Hoyer-Cantor proceedings — I was out chasing the Israeli delegation — and said the extemporized joshing was par for the course: Cantor and Hoyer have both emerged from leading a bruising health care debate, which Hoyer’s side won.

Here, for instance, is Cantor’s opener: "Although we’re on opposite sides of the political aisle, we are absolutely united when it comes to the US-Israel relationship. Steny is a genuine leader on this issue in his party, and I respect and thank him for that."

But looking over what each office sent out, I couldn’t help but be struck by the differences in tone when it came to accommodating a degree of criticism of Israel, and when it came to considering the challenges Iran sanctions pose.

Each leader, to be sure, noted the threat from Iran, and favored congressional sanctions as a means of confronting it, and each spoke of the robustness of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

But while Cantor seemed to blame the Obama administration for the recent tensions, Hoyer simply noted that while tensions exist, the relationship is sound. 

Cantor:

Unfortunately, there are signs of tension right now between our two nations. So we must remind our leaders here in Washington of the critical importance of the US-Israel relationship.

Hoyer:

Our nations’ friendship is more than six decades old, and, like all friendships, it has its trials and tensions. We can say candidly: this is one of those times. But the disagreements of the moment cannot undo the bond of generations. Today, we are reminded again why that bond is unbreakable.

And while both congressmen noted Israel’s accomplishments and the closeness of American and Israeli values, Hoyer made room for criticism of Israeli extremism and for praise of the moderate Palestinian leadership:

Cantor:

The American people know who stands with us in our fight against terrorism; we know who wept at candlelight vigils when America was attacked on 9-11; and we know who sends teams of doctors and millions of dollars halfway around the world to save lives in Haiti.  In the same way, we Americans also know who teaches their children to emulate suicide bombers; who danced and tossed candy around in the streets on 9-11 celebrating that horrible day. And we do know who names their boulevards, schools and their public squares after terrorists.

Hoyer:

In Israel, I met leaders, Jewish and Arab, who understand the urgency of peace. Prime Minister Netanyahu, the first Likud leader to recognize the necessity of two states, spoke of the promise of economic peace — the opened bridges and checkpoints that are making possible remarkable growth in the West Bank, showing Palestinians, there and in Gaza, that life holds more possibility than unending violence. Prime Minister Fayyad spoke of the day when all of his people would honor Israel’s right to exist, and said that ‘moderates gain standing when they show results—delivering services, leading by example, and being honest about failure.’

And yet, despite that leadership, there are those in Israel and the territories who would sacrifice peace to their extremist vision. There are hard-line settlers who resort to violence and stand in the way of a settlement. And there are Hamas terrorists who hold more than a million hostage in Gaza. There are Palestinian leaders who countenance textbooks depicting Jews as subhuman, as thugs and thieves—who are working to sow a new generation of hatred. And there are the rockets that pound towns like Sderot—each one of them a war crime.

Finally, while both leaders cast the need for sanctions in the stark terms of needing to contain Iran, and both leaders praised the Iranian opposition, only Hoyer spoke of the privations that sanctions would create for Iranian civilians:

Hoyer:

We know that sanctions are, in some ways, a tragic choice: They are never a perfectly precise instrument, and they may mean hardship for ordinary Iranians, including the brave dissenters we cheer in our hearts.

Knowing all that, I still speak for sanctions. Because millions of lives are at stake. Because sanctions can work when the international community recognizes that an outlaw nation poses a common threat to us all — the case that America is making strongly at the United Nations. Because Tehran can choose, at any time, to negotiate in good faith and set aside its aggressive nuclear pursuit. And because the alternative to sanctions is far worse.

So: What to make of all this? I’ll do this Rosner style:

1) Not much. Hoyer, whom I’ve interviewed for years, has a rare capacity for blunt nuance; he has always conveyed steadfast support for Israel leavened with criticism of the far Israeli right.

2) Not much in the past, but now, it’s interesting. It’s no coincidence that, in addition to the full text of his speech, Cantor’s office attached excerpts that highlighted the differences. The Congressional Democrats have just emerged from a partisan crucible in the health care debate; this may be a party that has finally internalized Reagan’s 11th commandment, not to go after people on your own side. In the past, the pro-Israel community could count on both parties on the Hill in a fight with the executive branch. Now, maybe not so much.

2.5) The Obama administration has emphatically made the case for Palestinian moderation. The Netanyahu administration emphatically has not. Note where Hoyer comes down.

3) And then there’s the Iran thing. Hoyer is smack in the center in his party, maybe leaning to the right a little. But as majority leader he can’t ignore the party’ substantial left — a quarter to a third of the congressional caucus. And these folks come from the camp that hated Iraq sanctions because of the privations they caused, and are queasy about Iran sanctions (although most have signed on for them).

In other words, stay tuned.

Full speeches below the jump.

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Hoyer:

In 1780, when our nation was struggling to be born, and John Adams was far from home, he wrote this in a letter to his wife: I must study politics and war, so that my sons have the liberty to study commerce, so that their sons have the right to study literature, and art, and music.

John Adams understood that so much of what we value, so much of what makes us human, rests on a slender foundation: that we can rest safely and soundly at night. That no one will trouble the sleep of our children.

It is a universal dream. It was the dream of the generation that forged our country in war. And for centuries, it was a Jewish dream—a dream denied and deferred, in land after land of exile, as home turned to hell time and again. Generations of Jews were born and died while that dream lived unfulfilled, while their homes, their futures, their lives were in someone else’s hand, at someone else’s whim—a people of guests, and an uprooted nation.

But in our time, the Jewish people has seen two answers, two true homes. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren called them two ‘Jewish utopias’: America and Israel.

America: a nation mixed from every people, a nation that has made citizens out of strangers, a home where the talents of Jews have been unleashed out of all proportion to their numbers.

And Israel: the state where Jews entered into world history again as ‘a nation like all other nations,’ in the words of the Tanakh; the state where Jews took up again, after two millennia, the precious burden of nationhood.

Our nations’ friendship is more than six decades old, and, like all friendships, it has its trials and tensions. We can say candidly: this is one of those times. But the disagreements of the moment cannot undo the bond of generations. Today, we are reminded again why that bond is unbreakable.

And we are reminded again that both homes, America and Israel, are indispensible to the Jewish future. If the Jewish future in one of these homes is more secure than ever, the future of the other is under grave threat.

I’ve traveled to Israel eleven times. I’ve gone in times of celebration and times of sorrow, times of threatening war and of uneasy peace. Last summer, thanks to AIPAC’s sister organization, the American Israel Educational Foundation, I traveled there again. In the King David Hotel I met with Rabbi Daniel Gordis, an American from Baltimore who had made aliyah, and he spoke to me about Jewish fear. He said that Israel meant this to him: that for the first time in memory, Jews were responsible for their own safety, that they had to beg no prince or sovereign for the right to live their lives. And he asked me to imagine life in Israel, two or three years from today, if that right was hanging on a button in a bunker under Tehran.

I’m a child of the Cold War, so I know something of that bone-deep fear. I know how it throws a dark cloud over life, even in the best times. I lived for 40 years under mutually assured destruction—but not with a religious fanatic on the other end. Not with a nuclear umbrella for terrorism, or the threat of nuclear terrorism here in America. Not with the prospect of an explosive regional arms race. Some of what threatens Israel, and the Middle East, and America, the world has seen before. Some, it has never seen.

But we know two things. We know that, just last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency told the world that Iran has enriched enough low-enriched uranium for two nuclear bombs. And we know that this cannot stand.Under years of diplomatic silence, Iran’s nuclear program grew. Under President Obama’s patient engagement, it has continued to grow—even as Iran’s unwillingness to negotiate in good faith was exposed to the world. We can’t expect a change of heart from a regime founded in violence, and in violent disregard for world opinion—but we can demand a change of behavior. So Congress will soon take final action on sanctions to target the Iranian economy at its weakest point, the refined petroleum it depends on. These sanctions will demonstrate the high cost of Iran’s self-imposed isolation from the community of nations.

But we know, even as we debate these measures, that the true face of Iran is not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—it is Neda Agha-Soltan, shot through the heart for demanding that her vote count. “It is in dissent silenced, in a peaceful Green opposition threatened and beaten and jailed, even as it demands freedom at home and openness to the world. And we know that sanctions are, in some ways, a tragic choice: they are never a perfectly precise instrument, and they may mean hardship for ordinary Iranians, including the brave dissenters we cheer in our hearts.

Knowing all that, I still speak for sanctions. Because millions of lives are at stake. Because sanctions can work when the international community recognizes that an outlaw nation poses a common threat to us all—the case that America is making strongly at the United Nations. Because Tehran can choose, at any time, to negotiate in good faith and set aside its aggressive nuclear pursuit. And because the alternative to sanctions is far worse.

This matters to you, as it matters to me, because it is an issue of Israeli survival. But survival is not enough. Survival is not Zionism, any more than breathing is life. Zionism is democracy. Zionism is Tohar HaNeshek—’Purity of Arms.’ Zionism is pluralism and tolerance and curiosity and openness, even in the face of hate. And today, the fate of Zionism is tied to the peace process—because that is the only way to preserve a Jewish, democratic Israel. What is at stake in peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the survival of the Jewish state’s deepest values. In that sense, it is a matter of life and death.

In Israel, I met leaders, Jewish and Arab, who understand the urgency of peace. Prime Minister Netanyahu, the first Likud leader to recognize the necessity of two states, spoke of the promise of economic peace—the opened bridges and checkpoints that are making possible remarkable growth in the West Bank, showing Palestinians, there and in Gaza, that life holds more possibility than unending violence. Prime Minister Fayyad spoke of the day when all of his people would honor Israel’s right to exist, and said that ‘moderates gain standing when they show results—delivering services, leading by example, and being honest about failure.’

And yet, despite that leadership, there are those in Israel and the territories who would sacrifice peace to their extremist vision. There are hard-line settlers who resort to violence and stand in the way of a settlement. And there are Hamas terrorists who hold more than a million hostage in Gaza. There are Palestinian leaders who countenance textbooks depicting Jews as subhuman, as thugs and thieves—who are working to sow a new generation of hatred. And there are the rockets that pound towns like Sderot—each one of them a war crime.

In Sderot, at the armored playground where its children are forced to play indoors under electric light, I spoke with Eeki Elner. After the rockets began falling on Sderot—he moved there. After one crashed through his roof—he stayed. Because there is no purer resistance than living every day in proud defiance of fear.

Eeki Elner and Rabbi Gordis are remarkable, but they are not unique—because, surrounded by a sea of hate, there is a nation of them. They are why I know in my heart that Israel will live, and endure, and have peace. They are the ones who, in the words of Abba Eban, have ‘given nationhood its deepest significance and its most enduring grace.’

John Adams imagined one generation dedicating itself to survival, so that those to come could have commerce and culture. But in Israel, those impulses are united in one generation—in each generation. Israel has made itself remarkable even under threat of death, even while fighting for its life. Israelis can teach every man and woman in the world how to love their country.

Cantor:

Thank you, and what a pleasure it is to join you this afternoon. I’m delighted to be here with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Although we’re on opposite sides of the political aisle, we are absolutely united when it comes to the US-Israel relationship. Steny is a genuine leader on this issue in his party, and I respect and thank him for that.

We gather here today under a dark cloud of uncertainty. Despite all the bloodshed Israel’s small population has borne, despite the hand of peace Israel has consistently extended to its neighbors, the 2,000-year-old dream of self-determination in the Jewish ancestral homeland is in mortal danger. We are in a critical time. Now is not the time to be picking fights with Israel in what seems to be an attempt to curry favor with the Arab world. Now is the time when the U.S. must stand with Israel in the global struggle against the threats posed by radical Islam.

It is times like these when we must remember what happens when Americans and decent-minded people everywhere fail to stand up to evil. Seventy years ago, after the violence of Kristallnacht, newspapers across America screamed Hitler’s warning that the Jews would be wiped out unless other countries took them in. Hitler correctly predicted that the world would be shocked, but do nothing. The U.S. Congress refused to raise quotas on refugees. The State Department erected a barricade of paperwork to keep the Jews out.

In 1938, two members of Congress sponsored a bill to admit 20,000 German-Jewish children into the United States. It was a priority for many Americans, including the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. But isolationist forces sabotaged the effort, and even the president failed to offer his full backing. The result? The bill died. And 20,000 Jewish children, who could have been saved, joined the 1.5 million children who would die in the Holocaust. Another instructive moment can be found in the tragic journey of the ship St. Louis.

Exactly 9 years to the day before the birth of the State of Israel, some 900 German Jews fleeing the Nazis set sail from Hamburg en route to Havana, Cuba – where they thought they had permission to land. But when the St. Louis pulled into Havana Harbor two weeks later, virtually all of the passengers were denied entry. Efforts to pay Cuban officials to accept the Jews broke down, and the ship was soon ordered out of Havana. On its way back to the cauldron of Europe, the St. Louis sailed so close to America’s shores that the passengers could see the lights of Miami. So near, yet so far. The German boat captain pleaded with U.S. officials for permission to dock. But instead of helping them come ashore, the U.S. Coast Guard patrolled the waters to make certain no one tried to jump ship. Passengers aboard the St. Louis frantically cabled President Roosevelt begging for refuge, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. The State Department’s reply: Get in line and wait your turn.

American Jews and other well meaning Americans were powerless to move our government to save countless lives. There was no State of Israel to take the Jews in. In fact, British-run Palestine was off-limits to Jewish refugees. At that moment, the tragic fate of the passengers was sealed. The majority were destined for the death camps. The takeaway for us? We must do all we can to ensure the survival of the state of Israel.

At a time like this there’s nothing more critical than making the case that a strong Israel is in the best interest of U.S. national security. There’s no better way to demonstrate this than to take people to see Israel first-hand. Steny and I have had the tremendous privilege of leading AIPAC-sponsored trips to Israel for members of Congress. Our colleagues are often moved to tears when they exit Yad Vashem and walk up to a balcony overlooking the eternal city of Jerusalem. Meeting with besieged families in Sderot, these members begin to understand the struggles the Israeli people go through every day. One Congressman summed it up like this: “Some of us came as supporters. Some of us were ambivalent and others were skeptical. But now we have seen this nation’s courage, and we’ve seen how it shares our values. We’re going home as Zionists.”

In 2010, a new set of dangers has emerged. A new enemy has arisen. And once again, Israel and the Jewish people are in the crosshairs. The Iranian regime, emboldened by the west’s lack of unity and resolve, brazenly forges ahead with its nuclear weapons program. Iran’s President denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Hamas, Hezbollah and other Islamist terror groups operate on Israel’s borders with the support of Tehran. They threaten the Jewish state with weaponry that grows more lethal by the day. No less dangerous is the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel as a state among the nations. Israel’s critics deny the Jewish people’s irrefutable, historic and religious link with the holy land.

Today’s blood libels and anti-Semitic incitement is a page taken directly from Nazi propaganda. Like a plague, this vitriol has spread throughout the international media, across the Internet, and into our colleges and universities. My message to you today is simply this: Should any of us ever grow weary, should any of us for one minute waver in our resolve to safeguard Israel, We must let the powerful lessons of history propel us to action! Unfortunately, there are signs of tension right now between our two nations. So we must remind our leaders here in Washington of the critical importance of the US-Israel relationship.

Let’s face it. Israel is not the problem. From Yemen to Afghanistan to Pakistan, terrorists are not going to lay down their arms against America if we abandon Israel. We must do everything possible to hold the media accountable and empower our communities at home with an understanding of the true nature of our shared struggle with Israel. We must begin with Iran. To those growing voices that say we shouldn’t take seriously the threats of a “madman”, we must ask: “Have we not been down this road before?”

We cannot take cover under the notion that we can actually deter a nuclear Iran. That would merely be lulling ourselves into a false sense of security. Iran must be dealt with firmly, with real sanctions that have real teeth. The message should be clear: If you deal with Iran, you are not welcome to deal with the U.S. Stopping the regime in Iran will involve empowering the domestic opposition and delivering Tehran the message that our willingness to use force is on the table.

As we face these new threats, one could ask, “What is the difference between 70 years ago and today?” The answer: The grassroots force of the American pro-Israel community led by AIPAC!!!

Thanks to you, I have complete faith that the United States Congress, and the American people, know well who our one true and reliable friend in the Middle East is: Israel.

The American people know who stands with us in our fight against terrorism; we know who wept at candlelight vigils when America was attacked on 9-11; and we know who sends teams of doctors and millions of dollars halfway around the world to save lives in Haiti. In the same way, we Americans also know who teaches their children to emulate suicide bombers; who danced and tossed candy around in the streets on 9-11 celebrating that horrible day. And we do know who names their boulevards, schools and their public squares after terrorists.

The case I press before you now is more than just a “Jewish cause” or just an Israeli issue. These are challenges to America. Israel’s security is synonymous with our own. The People who point guns at her with murder in their eyes will next turn on us. Israel has turned out to be not just a friend who shares our values, but a critically important strategic ally who brings stability and balance to a volatile region.

As Golda Meir said, Zionism and pessimism are not compatible. With your ongoing commitment, the miracle of the modern-day state of Israel will survive. And together, we will hasten the day, when the Jewish people, after 2,500 years of uninterrupted persecution, will at long last… live in peace in their ancestral homeland. Thank you.

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