Congress prepares letters, initiatives ahead of AIPAC confab

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As the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference gets underway in Washington Sunday, Capitol Hill staff contacts said they were tracking at least three initiatives to demonstrate Congressional support for the US-Israel alliance.

Among the efforts staffers were aware of, demonstrations of support for U.S. foreign aid to Israel, as well as to its treaty partners Egypt and Jordan; and for renewal of the U.S-Israel Strategic Partnership.

On Iran, sources said there would likely be a House letter, downgraded from a resolution, which is being drafted by the offices of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and  House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland).

The House letter, according to one source briefed on a draft of it Friday, asks the administration for regular  and serious consultations with Congress as the Iran nuclear negotiations go forward. It does not include demands for zero enrichment. To the extent that extraneous issues are included, they are not linked to the nuclear deal, the source said.  The letter also mentions the administration coming back to Congress for sanctions relief if there is a deal.

Sources said it was unclear but likely that there would also be a similar Senate letter. AIPAC members are also likely, as the Back Channel reported Thursday, to lobby Senators next week to sign on as co-sponsors to the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions bill (S1881) that President Obama has vowed to veto. The bill was shelved earlier this month with 59 co-sponsors. AIPAC has called for a delay in the vote, presumably until it has a veto proof 67 co-sponsors signed on, if they are able to reach it.

Sources said they were not sure if Democrats who had to date declined to sign on as co-sponsors might change their mind at the behest of AIPAC lobbying next week.

Meantime, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) announced they would hold a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday afternoon. Netanyahu is also due to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, and will speak at AIPAC on Tuesday, introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), who , with Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, spearheaded the Iran sanctions bill that the White House warns could scuttle Iran negotiations.

Kerry will address the AIPAC conference Monday evening at 6:15pm ET, the State Department announced. US Treasury Secretary Jacob “Jack” Lew will also represent the Obama administration at AIPAC this year.

Senate Republicans this week tried to attach the Iran sanctions as an amendment to veterans’ benefit legislation, which they voted to defeat after it was stripped out.  The head of the American Legion denounced the Republican vote to defeat the bill, and earlier effort to tie it up with controversial Iran sanctions, as “inexcusable.”

“There was a right way to vote and a wrong way to vote today, and 41 senators chose the wrong way,” American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said in a press statement Thursday. “That’s inexcusable.”

(Photo from AIPAC of members of Congress, 2010.) 

AIPAC expected to lobby for Iran sanctions bill that Obama has vowed to veto


As Senate Democrats and Republicans traded blame Thursday over blocked veterans’ benefits legislation to which Republicans had tried to attach an Iran sanctions amendment, the pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) faced questions about its position on the matter just days before its big annual policy conference here.

“The Republicans are trying to mislead the American public by saying that a bipartisan majority supports moving forward with new sanctions right now,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said in a statement Thursday. “In fact, many Senators….as well as Israel’s strongest supporter, AIPAC…agree that now is not the right time to bring a sanctions package to the floor.”

“AIPAC was unequivocal in its request for a delay on additional sanctions,” Reid’s statement continued. “This is what AIPAC said: ‘Stopping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support and… there should not be a vote at this time on the measure.’”

An AIPAC official, speaking to reporters at a lunch at Morton’s restaurant Thursday, said AIPAC members would next week lobby for more Senate co-sponsors for the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill (S1881), sources at the lunch told Al-Monitor on condition they not be identified since the lunch was off the record. President Obama has vowed to veto the measure, which was shelved last month after gaining 59 co-sponsors, short of the 67 needed to override a presidential veto. (The House passed a version of the measure overwhelmingly last summer [.pdf], before an interim Iran nuclear deal was reached in November; a separate House Iran sanctions push was shelved in January.)

AIPAC lobbyists may urge Democrats to co-sponsor the bill by arguing, “We don’t support a vote, but why not cosponsor?” a Hill staffer, speaking not for attribution, suggested Thursday.

“They burned their fingers very badly on S1881,” Douglas Bloomfield, a former AIPAC official and columnist told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, referring to AIPAC. “And I think they are trying now to put some balm on it. But they still haven’t given up on pushing it.”

AIPAC officials, writing in the New York Times last week, were “vague” about when they would push to bring the bill to a vote, Bloomfield noted.

“We support the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, sponsored by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and by Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois,” AIPAC officials Michael Kassen and Lee Rosenberg write in a February 22, 2014 New York Times op-ed. “Earlier this month, we agreed with Mr. Menendez on delaying a vote in the Senate, but we remain committed to the bill’s passage.”

“I think they are torn,” Bloomfield said, by the desire to maintain bipartisan appeal in Congress and among its membership, while at the same time, he said, “they are under pressure from what has become their Republican base on the Hill and they also have big money people.”

Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Executive Director Matthew Brooks agreed that AIPAC may be “shackled” by having to maintain bipartisan appeal, a constraint that he, as head of a Republican-aligned group, said he was glad not to suffer.

It’s a “luxury for me, I am not shackled by the handcuffs of bipartisanship,” Brooks said in a telephone interview from Dallas Thursday, where he Tweeted he was successfully fundraising over GOP support and Democratic opposition to moving forward now with the Iran sanctions bill. “AIPAC is in a much more difficult and challenging box, to maneuver to balance policy and practical considerations.”

An AIPAC spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Hill sources said that for now, an alternative resolution that would seek to define what should be the terms of a final Iran nuclear deal appeared to be off the table.

Kaine: Israel stance ‘no, no, no’ on Iran enrichment

Israel’s stance on acceptable terms for a final Iran nuclear deal remains as uncompromising as that which divided Washington and Jerusalem on the merits of an interim nuclear deal last fall, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) said Monday following a trip last week to the Middle East.

“Their position is no, no, no: No enrichment, no centrifuges, no weaponization program,” Kaine, referring to Israeli leaders, said in answer to a question on a conference call briefing with journalists Monday on his trip last week to Israel, Ramallah, Lebanon and Egypt.

Netanyahu, in a meeting with Senators Kaine and Angus King (Independent-Maine) in Israel last week, “said nothing about the pending legislation,” Kaine said, referring to stalled Iran sanctions legislation co-sponsored  by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Ron Kirk (R-Illinois). “He expressed what he has [previously] expressed. He has not backed away one iota [from his position] that the interim deal is a bad idea in his view. But he acknowledged…that the deal is done.”

Now the Israeli leader is turning his focus to how to “structure the final deal …so that it accomplishes what needs to be accomplished, and what would such a deal look like,” Kaine said, adding that Netanyahu did not refer to specific draft U.S. legislation on the matter. “He’s aware that if we can’t find an acceptable deal, it’s not hard to get Congress to pass more sanctions.”

When Netanyahu comes to Washington next week to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference and to meet with President Obama, “I suspect that rather than a speech that three quarter deals with” the six month Join Plan of Action that went into effect last  month, he will spend “a lot of time on what should be the components of a final deal” and what “assurances will be needed.”

Asked if the Israeli leader had shown any signs of softening his maximalist positions from last fall that an acceptable Iran nuclear deal could allow no centrifuges or domestic Iranian enrichment, Kaine said no.

“I understand and they [the Israelis] understand that this is a negotiation,” Kaine said. “At the end of the day, we have the same goal of a diplomatic solution, [of Iran] without a nuclear weapon and easy ability to produce a nuclear weapon. Exactly how to define that question of what is acceptable in terms of nuclear research and what is unacceptable, that gets too close to a weapon, there are some gray areas.”

“The US and Israeli perspectives may be a little different,” Kaine continued. “That demands communication.”

“I would like there to be zero enrichment, I would like there to be no facilities, I would like there not to be an indigenous program,” lead US Iran negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy  Sherman told journalists in Israel over the weekend. “I think I would like many things in life. But that does not mean I will always get them, and that is not necessarily the only path to ensuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon and that the international community can have confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its program.”

Kaine also said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders expressed gratitude for Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to advance a framework for an Israel-Palestine two state solution, but that both expressed doubts the other side was willing to make the necessary compromises and concessions for it to succeed.

In Lebanon, he said Lebanese leaders told him and King that they appreciated US financial support for humanitarian efforts to support the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the country, but that what was needed is to improve conditions inside Syria to slow the refugee exodus and move to end the conflict. He and King were preparing to leave a briefing at the US embassy in Beirut last week when a suicide blast went off some five miles south at an Iranian cultural center, killing several people–the latest sign of sectarian spillover violence from Syria’s civil war that threatens to destabilize its neighbors.

Kaine, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Near East and South Asia subcommittee, plans to hold a subcommittee hearing on Lebanon on Tuesday.

Photo: Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), right, meets in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Sen. Angus King (I-Me.), via Washington Jewish Week.

EU, Iran reach agreement on implementing nuclear deal


Diplomats from Iran and the European Union said Friday that they were able to reach agreement on implementing the Iran nuclear accord. Pending review by capitals of six world powers, an announcement on a start date for the accord to go into force could come as soon as the weekend.

Negotiators “made very good progress on all the pertinent issues,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU, said Friday. “This is now under validation at political level in capitals.”

The announcement came after two days of talks in Geneva between European Union deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.  Lead US negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, accompanied by her non-proliferation advisor James Timbie and Treasury Department’s Adam Szubin, also held bilateral meetings in Geneva Thursday with Araghchi’s team as well as met with Schmid, the State Department said.

“A final decision is to be made in capitals and a result to be announced within the next two days, ” Araghchi told Iranian media Friday.

The progress in Geneva came as Iran sanctions legislation opposed by the White House had by Friday attracted a total of 59 Senate co-sponsors, not yet the 67 needed to override a presidential veto.

But notably, the bill has gotten mostly GOP support, attracting only two Democrats and 25 Republicans as co-sponsors since it was first introduced last month by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois). Continue reading

White House warns new Iran bill could scuttle diplomacy

The White House, State Department and ten Senate Committee chairs warned on Thursday that new Iran sanctions legislation introduced  by Senator Bob Menendez risks undermining U.S. diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful resolution with Iran over its nuclear  program.

“We don’t want to see action that will proactively undermine American diplomacy,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists at the White House Thursday. “We made it very clear to the Senate that it is not the time for new Iran sanctions. We don’t think it will be or should be enacted.”

“New sanctions would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran,” the US intelligence community wrote in an unclassified assessment provided to members of Congress December 10th.

The assessment was cited by 10 Senate Committee chairs in an unusual letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urging against new Iran sanctions at this time.

“At this time, as negotiations are ongoing, we believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail,” the ten Senate committee chairs wrote, in a letter to Reid that was signed by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin (D-Michigan), Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-California), Commerce Committee Chair John Rockefeller (West Virginia), Homeland Security Committee chair Tom Carper, Energy Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), and Health, Education and Labor Committee chair Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Several veteran Hill hands expressed amazement at what one called the “unprecedented” letter by the ten Senate committee chairs, several of whom are Jewish, for publicly countering a fellow Senate committee chair Menendez and AIPAC, which has been pressing members of Congress to back the measure. “The new Senate bill defines parameters for a final agreement with Iran,” AIPAC wrote in a Tweet Thursday.

Sen. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chair of the Senate foreign relations panel, on Thursday introduced the Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013 on behalf of 26 Senators, including several facing reelection races next year. Among the co-sponsors were Senators Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania). Continue reading

White House meets Jewish leaders to press for delay in new Iran sanctions

The White House on Tuesday met with a small group of Jewish leaders as part of an intensifying effort to press for a delay in new Iran sanctions it fears could derail negotiations with Iran on a possible nuclear deal.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Deputy National Security Advisors Antony Blinken and Ben Rhodes briefed leaders from the Jewish groups on the Iran negotiations to date.

“Following on the recent P5+1 talks with Iran, and in advance of the next round of talks November 7-8, Senior Administration Officials today briefed the leaders of several Jewish organizations on our progress,” National Security Staff spokesperson Bernadette Meehan told A-Monitor Tuesday.  “The administration officials made clear that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that our preference is to resolve the issue peacefully through diplomacy.  The meeting was constructive and we look forward to continuing these discussions going forward.”

“We had a constructive and open exchange and agreed to continue the consultation to enhance the prospect of achieving a transparent and effective diplomatic resolution,” a statement from the Jewish leaders who attended the meeting Tuesday said. “We welcome the reaffirmation of the President’s commitment to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear capability and that all options remain viable to assure that end.”

Participants in the off record discussion, which was first reported by JTA, included leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, and AIPAC, the statement said.

The Obama administration has been waging a more vigorous effort to try to push back against new Iran sanctions legislation under consideration by the Senate Banking committee, arguing there should be a pause in new sanctions through the fall, while maintaining existing major oil and banking sanctions, to give momentum to negotiations and test if Iran is serious about making a nuclear compromise. The administration wants a “pause” on new sanctions until January to try to come to closure on a possible confidence building measure, and they feel new sanctions now could derail that effort, sources briefed on the discussions said.

As part of that effort, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Sherman, the lead US negotiator, have been doing classified briefings on the Hill this week, sources said. Lew and Secretary of State John Kerry are due to brief Senators on Iran in closed session on Thursday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently argued that the only acceptable deal with Iran is one that would permit no enrichment and zero centrifuges. Current and former American officials and even some former Israeli officials contend that a zero enrichment deal is unachievable, and wonder if Netanyahu intends to try to spoil a possible deal that could increase the amount of time it would take for Iran to have potential nuclear breakout capability.

A good if imperfect negotiated solution is superior to the alternative options available, former top State Department Iran nonproliferation official Robert Einhorn argued in a paper delivered in Israel last week, noting increased pressure from the US now could fracture the international community and push Iran to escalate by increasing its enrichment activities.

“At a minimum, the Israelis want us to bargain very hard,” Einhorn, now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday. “And I think they see their tough position as a way of strengthening our resolve. But whether at the end of the day they would be content with less than [the] maximalist approach is hard to tell at this point.”

The Obama “administration wants to test Iranian willingness to accept significant constraints on its nuclear program in order to get relief from sanctions,” Einhorn said. “And so it’s prepared to [see]… how far they are prepared to go to meet US concerns.”

President Obama “has welcomed an opportunity to try to put to the test whether or not Iran really desires to pursue only a peaceful program,” Secretary Kerry told the Ploughshares Fund  Monday.   Continue reading

Kerry: Opportunity for Iran diplomacy cracking open

hile aides say Secretary of State John Kerry has no plans to attend Iran nuclear talks with six world powers due to get underway in Geneva Tuesday, there are hints Kerry may decide to do so on his own, or to pursue a follow up meeting with his Iranian counterpart soon.

“Yes, there is a chance, but no decision has been made and, for now, it is not happening,” one US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Sunday. “His aides are advising no, but Kerry often makes these types of calls on his own.”

Kerry “has no plans” to come to Geneva, a State Department official said Sunday.

Kerry met with chief international negotiator, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, in London Sunday, to discuss the upcoming Iran talks, Syria, and Middle East peace, the State Department said. He is scheduled to travel next to Paris.

“Right now, the window for diplomacy is cracking open,” Kerry said in videotaped remarks to a national conference of the American Israel Public Affairs (AIPAC) meeting in California Sunday. “But I want you to know that our eyes are open too.”

“I hope that we can agree on a road map for arriving at an agreement by Wednesday,” Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who also heads lran's nuclear negotiating team, wrote on his Facebook page Sunday. “But even if the other side shows goodwill, agreeing on details and implementation would require another cabinet level meeting.”

The U.S. team to the Geneva Iran talks is led by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and imcludes her top deputy and veteran nonproliferation expert Jim Timbie, State Department Iran sanctions principal deputy Richard Nephew, National Security Staff senior director for Persian Gulf Affairs Puneet Talwar, Treasury sanctions lawyer Adam Szubin, State Department Iran spokesman Alan Eyre, and State Department deputy spokesman Marie Harf, the State Department said.

Update: Secretary of State John Kerry is flying back to Washington from London Monday, his spokespeople said

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Obama tasks Congress with Syria vote: ‘We should have this debate’

As the world braced for imminent action, President Obama announced on Saturday that he had decided to seek Congressional approval before carrying out military action in Syria to punish and deter alleged chemical weapons use.

“After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” Obama announced from the White House Rose Garden Saturday.

“But having made my decision..I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he said. “And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”

The stunning decision, carried live by Syrian State television, was reportedly made by the president only on Friday evening, just hours after the White House released a declassified U.S. intelligence assessment laying out the evidence of the August 21 nerve gas attack, and Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a call for action.

“History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency,” Kerry said at the State Department Friday.

Indeed, most of Obama’s national security cabinet reportedly only learned of Obama’s reversal at a White House meeting Saturday morning, during which some of them were said to have argued against it. Among other reasons, because Congress is on recess until September 9th. But Obama stood firm, and as Kerry said on Sunday, he’s the president.

The White House on Saturday submitted a proposed draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Syria to Congress. Senate Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said he would convene the Senate to consider the authorization on Wednesday (Sept. 4). House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), however, said he would not call the House back into session early from recess, and House members would consider the motion following their return September 9th.

President Obama reserved the right to act even if Congress votes against the measure– but he did not explicitly vow to do so.

“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective,” Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, said. “We should have this debate.”

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Kerry, Rice brief Jewish, Arab American groups on Mideast peace talks

Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice hosted Jewish-American and Arab-American community leaders at separate meetings at the White House Thursday and Friday to try to bolster domestic support for U.S. Middle East peace-making efforts.

Also attending the meetings were new US peace envoy Martin Indyk and his deputy Frank Lowenstein, as well as the White House’s top Middle East strategist Phil Gordon, senior director for Middle East and North Africa Prem Kumar, and deputy national security advisor for communications Ben Rhodes, attendees told Al-Monitor.

The meetings-ostensibly off the record–come as Indyk and Lowenstein are heading back to the region to facilitate a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks next week. Negotiations will be held August 14th in Jerusalem followed by a meeting in Jericho, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Thursday.

“Obviously, they wanted to brief Jewish community leaders on their efforts with regard to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and also to appeal for the community to support their efforts,” Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union, told the Back Channel Friday.

“I think everybody were appreciate of their efforts and commitment and motivations,” Diament continued. “Obviously, there were some difficult questions asked. But it was a very cordial and civil and substantive discussion.”

“I would say both Rice and Ben Rhodes … made a point of stating President Obama’s commitment to this agenda item and also his appreciation for what Secretary Kerry is doing,” Diament said.

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Hagel meets Israel's Ehud Barak


Newly confirmed US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday met with visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in his first bilateral meeting with a foreign leader since taking the helm of the Pentagon last week.

The two defense chiefs discussed Syria, Iran and continued US support for Israel’s qualitative military edge and anti-missile defense systems, despite looming US budget cuts, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.

On Syria, the two defense chiefs discussed “the need for the Syrian regime to maintain control over chemical and biological weapons” in that country and pledged to “continue U.S.-Israel contingency planning to counter that potential threat,” Little said.

On Iran, Secretary Hagel “reiterated that President Obama is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon with all options on the table,” Little said. “The United States continues to believe there is still time to address this issue through diplomacy, but that window is closing.”

Hagel and Barak have a long and constructive working relationship dating back over a decade, former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas wrote for Al-Monitor late last year, noting he had personally been present at three of their past working meetings.  Continue reading