AIPAC, other pro-Israel leaders at Senate meet laud Kerry initiative


WASHINGTON (JTA) — In a meeting with Senate Democrats, top pro-Israel leaders endorsed the Obama administration’s latest Israeli-Palestinian peace bid and warned that the recent Iranian election was of little consequence.

Michael Kassen, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, began his talk at the meeting Wednesday with what participants said was a “hearty” endorsement of the efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to restart the talks.

Kerry earlier this month, in an address to the American Jewish Committee, had asked for Jewish support in advancing the peace process, which he has said is critical to reconvene in the coming months. He is arriving in Jordan this week for another round of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

According to participants who described the off-the-record meeting in the Capitol, Kassen said much of the burden of reviving the talks lies with the Palestinian Authority, which has resisted returning to the talks until Israel freezes settlement expansion.

Also endorsing the process was Rabbi Steve Gutow, who directs the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella Jewish public policy body. Gutow delivered the opening overview of Jewish community concerns.

Debra DeLee, the president of Americans for Peace Now, thanked Kassen and Gutow for endorsing the process.

Kassen and Robert Sugarman, the newly installed chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the community’s foreign policy umbrella, also dismissed the likelihood of change in Iran now that a relative moderate, Hassan Rohani, has been elected. They noted Rohani’s deep ties to the establishment, as well as the fact that real power in the country lies with the religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), one of 23 senators attending the meeting, replied that it was worth watching how Rohani’s election played out. He said the Senate and the administration remained focused on Iran and sought to exhaust sanctions and other non-military means of forcing Iran to make more transparent its nuclear program.

Rohani says he is opposed to reducing uranium enrichment, a key Israeli and American demand, but is open to making Iran’s nuclear program, which he says is peaceful, more transparent.

The senators and the Jewish groups discussed an array of domestic issues, including spending cuts to social service programs, said Gutow, who spoke to JTA according to rules that allowed participants to discuss their own remarks.

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Gutow also raised Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and said he told the senators “we hoped they would respond” by initiating new legislation to replace the landmark civil rights law.

The act, which had the support of a number of Jewish groups, requires federal review of changes in voting laws in states and areas that have a history of racial discrimination.

The meetings between Democratic senators and the organizational Jewish leadership takes place approximately once a year. Senate leaders present included Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), the chairman of the caucus’ Steering and Outreach Committee.

“Today’s candid conversation allowed myself and my colleagues to hear the most pressing concerns of the Jewish community, and determine how we can best help address them,” Begich said in a statement after the meeting.

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