Congress prepares letters, initiatives ahead of AIPAC confab

Share

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.) 

Obama cabinet briefs Congress on Syria, as UK participation looks in doubt


The Obama administration will brief lawmakers on Syria in an unclassified teleconference call at 6pm Thursday.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James A. Winnefeld Jr. are expected to be on the call, Hill sources said.

The briefing was originally going to be classified which would have required members not in Washington to travel to a federal building with a secure line.

But several lawmakers were apparently traveling and did not think they could get to a classified line, Hill sources say, and the briefing was changed to unclassified to accommodate them. Among those who didn’t think they could get to a classified line, Hill sources said, were Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), who was reportedly fundraising in North Dakota and Ohio Wednesday. (A spokesman for Cantor did not immediately respond to a query.) House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was traveling in Montana, but an aide said it was not the case that he could not get to  a secure line for the Syria call. “Some other members may have had such an issue but it was not one for the speaker,” Brendan Buck, spokesman for Boehner, said by email Thursday.

Boehner sent President Obama a detailed letter (.pdf) Wednesday affirming the president's prerogative to act against Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use, but seeking more clarification on the U.S. military strategy and legal justification for Syria action.

“It is essential that you provide a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action – which is a means, not a policy – will secure U.S. objectives and how it fits into your overall policy,” Boehner wrote Obama.  “I respectfully request that you, as our country’s commander-in-chief, personally make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests, preserve America’s credibility, deter the future use of chemical weapons, and, critically, be a part of our broader policy and strategy.

The Obama administration- Congressional consultations on Syria are, however, so far positively tame compared to what ally British Prime Minister David Cameron has experienced from British parliament, still haunted by the Ira war. The UK Joint Intelligence Committee released a unanimous assessment Thursday that said, in short, no one else could have conducted the Syrian chemical weapons attack except Syrian regime forces, and that they assessed the Assad regime had used chemical weapons 14 times previously in the conflict on a small scale before the much larger Aug. 21 attack in Ghouta that killed over 300 people. Despite the assessments, British public opinion is wary of getting involved, and Labour leader Ed Miliband urged Cameron at a parliament debate Thursday to delay any action on Syria until further verification from the United Nations chemical weapons inspections team and another UN Security Council debate.

Cameron has agreed not to act before UN inspectors return from Syria on Saturday and report back to the UN Security Council some time next week. The British parliament would then in theory vote on whether to authorize the UK to act.

It’s not clear how long Obama will wait for him, though, especially as the vote looks increasingly unlikely to pass, US and British sources said. Continue reading

Opposition to Hagel may be softening


As President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense Monday, opposition to the choice appeared to be receding somewhat.

“Chuck knows war is not an abstraction,” Obama said in a ceremony in the White House East Room. “He understands that sending young American to fight and bleed in the dirt and the mud is something we only do when absolutely necessary.”

Several groups and political leaders said Monday they would not formally oppose the choice, though some admitted to being lukewarm. Among them, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League, and former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who earlier said he opposed the choice. Continue reading

Rabbi linked to US lawmakers questioned in Israel graft probe


Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, a charismatic rabbi with a large and influential following in New York, has been questioned in Israel on allegations that he tried to bribe a senior Israeli police investigator, Israeli media report Friday. The deepening legal scrutiny of Rabbi Pinto in Israel comes as his former top aide appeared in federal court in New York Friday, amid an FBI campaign finance probe of a congressman accused of pressuring Rabbi Pinto’s followers for illegal campaign donations.

Pinto is alleged to have been caught in a sting offering a senior Israeli police investigator a $200,000 bribe for information concerning a money laundering investigation, Ma’ariv reported.

Rabbi Pinto was questioned Thursday by Israeli police “on suspicion of having tried to bribe chief of the Police Investigation Division Brig.-Gen. Ephraim Bracha,” Maariv’s Avi Ashkenazi reported.

“Escorted by detectives and wearing a wire, the officer, [Bracha], received $100,000 in cash from Pinto, in exchange for which he was to provide information about the investigation into Hazon Yeshaya, a charity organization,” Maariv wrote.

Pinto’s attorney told the paper the rabbi has cooperated in answering the police’s questions and has done nothing wrong.The rabbi and his wife have been released to house arrest in Ashdod, Israel to answer additional questions, reports said.

Rabbi Pinto, 38, has developed an influential following in both Israel and the United States, and has close ties to US lawmakers. In August, the FBI arrested the rabbi’s former top aide, who had worked as a fundraiser for New York Congressman Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island). Al-Monitor reported in August that the top seven donors to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s 2008 campaign were from members of Rabbi Pinto’s congregation.

Ofer Biton, the former aide to Rabbi Pinto and fundraiser for Grimm, had a status hearing in his case before US District Court Judge Roslynn Mauskopf Friday, a spokesman for the US Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York told Al-Monitor Friday.

Biton also informed the court Friday that he has retained a second defense lawyer, Alan Vinegrad, who used to be the US attorney in the district.

Biton, arrested on an immigration fraud charge in August, was released to house arrest last week after a former business partner of Grimm’s put up his $1.5 million bail.

Continue reading

Top seven donors to Eric Cantor 2008 campaign followers of Rabbi Pinto

An influential Orthodox rabbi whose former aide has been arrested in a federal campaign finance probe has ties to one of the most powerful members of Congress: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, I reported on the front page Thursday.

Indeed, further examination of federal campaign filings by Al-Monitor Saturday indicate that the top seven donors to Cantor’s 2008 campaign are followers or associates of Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, an Israeli-born mystic rabbi who has acquired a devoted States-side following since he moved to New York in 2005, including among real estate developers.

Together, the group of close Rabbi Pinto associates that made up Cantor’s seven top donors in 2008 gave about $330,000 to the Virginia Republican–almost 10% of the $3.9 million total Cantor raised for the 2008 race. None of them are from Virginia, and some had not previously given to US political campaigns.

Josef Ben Moha, of New Jersey, donated $48,100 to Cantor’s Victory Fund on April 11, 2008–his only campaign donation in US records. Moha is listed as managing director of the company, Livono (or Livorno) Partners, whose CEO Ben Zion Suky donated $48,100 to Cantor’s 2008 campaign on the same date. Suky serves as the “right-hand man…. translator, gatekeeper and conduit to the outside world” for Rabbi Pinto, the Forward reported last year. He also owns property with Rabbi Pinto’s wife, as well as a porn DVD distribution business.

Haim Milo Revah, of California, donated $48,100 to Cantor on April 21, 2008. “When Haim Revah, a real-estate magnate who once owned the Lipstick Building where Bernard Madoff was a tenant, brooded about purchasing the Bank One tower in Dallas two years ago, the rabbi [Pinto] suggested a maximum bid that proved to be the winning price: $216 million,” the Wall Street Journal reported in February 2011, citing Revah: “I don’t know how the rabbi did it, but at the end of the day, it was the best price possible.”

Haim Binstock, and his wife Gallya Binstock, together donated $91,600 to Cantor’s campaign on October 31, 2008. (It was one of only two Haim Binstock campaign donations in US records, following a $300 contribution to the NRCC in 2004.) Binstock’s business partner Ilan Bracha, and his wife Mati Bracha, also donated $91,600 to Cantor’s campaign on the same date, campaign filings show.

In 2008, “Bracha, one of the city’s top-selling residential brokers, and his partner developer Haim Binstock paid $1.65 million” to buy a ground floor space in Manhattan’s the Heritage at Trump Place that “they plan to donate …for [a synagogue for Rabbi Pinto's] use,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Bracha, “also from Israel, met Rabbi Pinto shortly after moving to New York and struck up a close relationship,” the Journal report said. “‘He’s like a mentor and a father to me,” Bracha told the Journal in 2008 about Rabbi Pinto. ‘He has a red phone to God.’”

Rep. Cantor, the second most powerful member of Congress, is also one of its most successful fundraisers. Since the 2009 party-switch of then Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Cantor is also the only elected Jewish Republican in Congress. Continue reading

Yahoo Activist Daniel Loeb’s Next Battle

Will hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb do to Obama what he did to Yahoo?

After waging battle with Yahoo’s board for months, the activist shareholder and Third Point LLC founder has now completed what amounts to total regime change at the company. Having upended the company’s board and helped oust its last CEO, Scott Thompson, Loeb played a key behind the scenes role in recruiting Google’s Marissa Mayer as Yahoo’s new CEO, AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher reported Tuesday.

Now Loeb and his new Yahoo CEO recruit Mayer share the goal of boosting Yahoo’s fortunes. But they find themselves on opposite sides of the 2012 US presidential race.

Loeb this month co-hosted a $25,000-person Hamptons fundraiser for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va), the Los Angeles Times reported.

Mayer, 37, by contrast, “is an active Democratic fundraiser,” who hosted a 2010 fundraiser at her Palo Alto home for President Barack Obama, “and has given to Obama annually since 2007,” Politico reported Tuesday.

Continue reading