Democrats Strike Back at Republicans on Foreign Assistance to Israel

In the sphere of U.S. presidential politics, as in the game of chess, once you've touched a piece, it's not easy to backtrack.

Republican presidential hopefuls recently attacked President Obama on his policy towards Iran and the exchange he had with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Cannes, in which the latter reportedly called PM Benjamin Netanyahu "a liar." Meanwhile, Sarkozy cleared the air by sending Netanyahu and his wife a personal letter of condolences and assurances of friendship following the death of Sara Netanyahu's father. President Obama addressed the issue in general, understandably avoiding commenting on the two key phrases he and his French counterpart used to express their personal frustrations with the Israeli leader.

Democrats decided to focus on a different issue - the Republican presidential hopefuls' plan to cut foreign assistance, an issue raised during the last Republican primaries debate in South Carolina. Governor Rick Perry pledged foreign aid will "start from zero." Former governor Mitt Romney agreed with his colleague, but his campaign staff later clarified that Romney did not mean aid to Israel, but to Pakistan. But in the sphere of U.S. presidential politics, as in the game of chess, once you've touched a piece, it's not easy to back-track, if your opponent sticks to the unwritten rules guiding political blunders.

"If he meant just Pakistan, why did he say ‘everything,’ and not just ‘Pakistan’?,” former Congressman Robert Wexler said on Monday in a conference call arranged by the Democratic National Committee. "Romney was torn between two constituencies. He had an opportunity to appease the Tea Party constituency. On the other hand, he knew those who support Israel would feel differently - and he made his choice," Wexler explained.

For almost half an hour, Wexler lashed out at the Republican presidential hopefuls' approach. "What is the most troubling in the position the Republican candidates took with such enthusiasm, is the fact they ignored the memorandum of understanding with Israel in 2007 that America agreed to provide $30 billion of military assistance to Israel in 10 years, and now we are in the third year of it", he said.

"They either ignore it or intend to violate it. This memorandum of understanding is sacrosanct - and they have no intention to implement it or strengthen it as President Obama did. Ideas to minimize it, relocate it, zero it out are unfortunately designed to put the foreign aid on shakier ground, and it's unacceptable. It particularly sends disturbing and dangerous message to nations like Iran. If you zero out the foreign aid to other countries, the aid to Israel is unsustainable," he added.

He further warned of the dire consequences America and Israel would face if Israel's foreign aid was cut as proposed.

Unbreakable bond

Meanwhile, among the many events the democrats recently held across the country was Sunday's Jewish fundraiser, the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah Dinner - minimum $250 per ticket - in Detroit. an event attended by the Vice President Joe Biden.

About 20 minutes into his speech, Biden stressed that "America's bond with Israel is unbreakable," naming numerous challenges facing Israel, including efforts to isolate and delegitimize it. Biden continued to underscore the Obama administration's support for Israel, this time managing to avoid fumbling into controversy.

White House portfolio

It is also interesting to note that Jarrod Bernstein, new White House Jewish community liaison, only holds this one portfolio without, as is usually the case, holding another portfolio such as minorities outreach. This may be a sign of the importance the administration places on its relations with the Jewish community during the build up to the 2012 Presidential Elections.

But the bigger question being asked these days in the pro-Israeli camp is whether or not the administration had actually put the efforts to promote the Middle East peace process, on hold until after the 2012 elections. Administration officials will naturally deny this, saying the Quartet statement is still on the table, and that they are trying to bring the sides back to the negotiations table, but it's pretty clear that unless at least one side softens its position, the U.S. administration will have no incentive to push for any meaningful steps.

If Obama won’t come to Jerusalem…

If Obama won't come to Jerusalem, Jerusalem's mayor will come to Obama. Nir Barkat, Jerusalem's mayor, is a frequent guest in Washington, and even if he does not meet with the President, he is still welcome at the office of U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Following their meeting on Monday, the congresswoman called Barkat her "good friend" and the two discussed "Iran’s relentless drive to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities, including the new deeply troubling IAEA report indicating that Tehran’s progression in its nuclear program has reached a critical level. An Iran with nuclear weapons capabilities would pose an existential threat to Israel, and gravely threaten U.S. security and that of our allies around the world."

Ros-Lehtinen also stressed her support for the formal U.S. recognition of Jerusalem "as Israel’s undivided capital", adding that "the Administration must finally move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem" and "end its one-sided criticism and pressuring of the Israeli government, particularly concerning its building policies," referring to plans to expand the settlements.

Koshering DC

You cannot make politics with an empty belly and the plans to add some kosher food to the Congressional cafeteria drew pretty enthusiastic responses, despite the fact that the kosher items will be catered, and not cooked in a non-kosher kitchen. With only two glatt kosher restaurants in Washington, DC, it's certainly an interesting change - especially for some observant Jewish staffers who had to stick to lunch boxes brought from home, vegetarian sandwiches or packed snacks.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Chabad representative in DC, says when he got to town about 20 years ago, he launched a long campaign to bring some kosher food to the various public organizations cafeterias - and some museums today offer kosher food.

"Sometimes it took three years to convince people to be more sensitive to this issue", he says. "But after we koshered the White House kitchen for the receptions for the Jewish community - nobody can say it's impossible. It might be more complicated and more costly - but it's certainly not impossible. There were some previous attempts to bring kosher food to the Congress, but I think this time it will hold. It's great that the observant Jews who want to eat there won't have to be worried what is in that sandwich".