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Focus on Issues As Democrats Flex Their Muscles,


Jewish organizations are seizing the opportunity of a winter of discontent to position themselves against Bush administration policies.

Aided by an adversarial Congress wielding its power for the first time since President Bush ascended to power, these groups are taking strong stands against the U.S. administration’s policies, from Iraq and Israel-Palestinian peace initiatives to gay rights and tax cuts.

Speaking off the record, Jewish officials say the relationship between the White House and the newly Democratic Congress has energized a community long unhappy with much of the administration’s domestic policy and wary of Bush’s final-days push for peace in the Middle East.

In many cases, the confrontations will come into the open at winter policy conferences for major groups.

Perhaps the most dramatic protest has to do with Iraq.

The Union of Reform Judaism’s executive committee, due to meet March 12, is considering a resolution to oppose Bush’s troop surge in blunt terms. Reform leaders will raise the issue during the Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum that begins Feb. 25.

The URJ draft resolves to “oppose an escalation in troop strength.” “Escalation” is a word the White House has said is loaded and has urged others to avoid in describing the additional 21,000 troops Bush has assigned to the region.

In a letter to lay and clerical leaders Robert Heller, chairman of the URJ board of trustees, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the group’s president, said it was time to call for immediate action.

A resolution opposing the war, passed overwhelmingly at the Reform movement’s biennial general assembly in late 2005 was less confrontational, called for the United States to begin considering a withdrawal.

“Much has changed over the past 14 months,” the letter said.

Given “the deteriorating situation on the ground, the destabilizing impact of the war in Iraq on the entire region, the growing economic, strategic and political costs of the war and their attendant impact on America’s ability to pursue other vital foreign and domestic priorities, and the important decisions our nations will be making in the coming months,” the letter said, “it is time for our leadership to address how our 2005 resolution should be applied.”

Republican opposition to the war is growing as well, so the issue is not neatly partisan. At the least, if JCPA, the consensus-driven umbrella group for national organizations and Jewish community relations organizations, also takes a strong anti-war posture, it would place the Jewish community squarely against the president on the signature foreign policy controversy as Bush’s term nears its finish.

The JCPA plenum will feature a session with David Satterfield, the top Iraq adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, will address the plenum together with Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), the most strident war critic within the Republican Party. That will be followed by an open discussion, where Reform leaders will be asked to make their case.

Another area promising tension with the Bush administration is its drive to revive the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Pro-Israel and Jewish Democrats, backed by the pro-Israel lobby, often drive congressional Middle East policy, and they already have made clear their skepticism about Rice’s efforts.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the Jewish chairwoman of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee’s foreign operations subcommittee, already has placed a hold on Rice’s request of $86 million to help prop up Mahmoud Abbas, the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority president.

Significantly, Lowey is a speaker at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy forum March 11-13. Set to appear at the same session is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a top Republican who also opposes funding for the Palestinian Authority. Chairing the session is Esther Kurz, one of AIPAC’s top Hill lobbyists.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the Jewish chairman of the House’s Middle East subcommittee, dedicated one of his first sessions last week to a skeptical overview of Rice’s new push for peace. Especially discouraging, Ackerman said in his opening remarks, was Abbas’ recent national unity deal with Hamas, a terrorist group that rejects Israel’s existence.

“Must Israel renegotiate its right to exist every time the Palestinians change their government?” Ackerman asked. “This is lunacy.”

There are hints of a split within the Jewish community on one key Bush foreign policy: isolating Iran. Democrats want to keep Iran engaged while insisting they won’t rule out a military option to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The Bush administration, backed strongly by AIPAC, is wary of dialogue, worrying that it buys the Islamic Republic time to build a nuclear capacity.

The URJ resolution on Iraq suggests an alignment with the pro-dialogue voices among Democrats, including Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House majority leader, and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, U.S. senator from New York, and John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who was John Kerry’s running mate in 2004.

The resolution refers favorably to the congressionally mandated Baker-Hamilton commission on Iraq, which recommended such dialogue. It also passively encourages diplomacy with Iran and Syria, saying the countries “should be pressured to engage in dialogue with their counterparts in Iraq.”

Domestically there is plenty of fodder on the JCPA menu of resolutions for a Jewish community that traditionally is liberal. A draft resolution on “civil rights and individual liberties” maintains that “efforts to amend the federal or state constitutions and statutes, or local ordinances to narrow the rights of individuals, or to strip courts of authority to consider various types of civil rights claims, pose a profound danger to civil rights and liberties.”

The resolution was drafted particularly with statutes in mind that seek to constitutionally ban gay marriage. Bush favors just such a constitutional amendment.

Other proposed JCPA resolutions reflecting a renewed commitment to liberal values include one backing gun controls and another opposing tax cuts in the context of state and federal budget-balancing efforts.

The resolution against tax cuts, titled “measures that undermine governments’ ability to address critical human needs,” comes in the wake of an internal United Jewish Communities memo that draws a direct line between a social service crisis and Bush’s enthusiasm for tax cuts.

Until now, Jewish social service lobbyists have resisted making explicit such a linkage, not wanting to antagonize the White House or Bush’s Jewish supporters.

The JCPA, National Council of Jewish Women and the Anti-Defamation League also are supporting a renewed congressional push to expand hate-crime laws to include crimes based on sexual preference. Such legislation has been quashed in Congress by Republican leaders heeding conservative Christians who reject any recognition of gay rights.

Other liberal initiatives this winter are not necessarily at odds with Bush administration policy. A JCPA resolution on comprehensive immigration reform would decriminalize the status of some non-documented immigrants, a position at odds with some congressional Republicans but aligned with Democrats and the White House.

JCPA delegates also will vote on a resolution to isolate Sudan over its failure to comply with international demands to stop the genocide in its Darfur region, a policy also in line with Bush’s tough posture.

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