‘American democracy at work’

‘American democracy at work’

Norpac mission brings 1,000 pro-Israel advocates to Washington

WASHINGTON – Torrential rain didn’t stop the hundreds of Norpac members who trekked to Washington, D.C., last week to advocate on behalf of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

Roughly 1,000 people on 24 buses from across the New York metropolitan area, including Teaneck, Englewood, the Oranges, Highland Park, Manhattan, and Long Island, joined Norpac’s annual Mission to Washington on April 30. Armed with a set of talking points emphasizing foreign aid to Israel and Iranian sanctions, members of the Englewood-based pro-Israel political action committee met with 98 senators and more than 70 percent of the House to advocate for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. (In some cases, where congressional leaders were in voting sessions, members of their legislative staffs met with the Norpac groups.)

“Each of you is here because you stand for the critical, unshakeable alliance between Israel and the United States of America,” Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said at the beginning of Wednesday’s plenary session, where he, Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) praised Norpac’s members for their participation in the advocacy process and extolled the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Dr. Ben Chouake addresses Norpac’s plenary session. Josh Lipowsky

“As an elected official, I know there is no substitute for hearing from your own constituents face to face on what is important to them, what is important to our country, and indeed the world,” said state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck as she introduced Mr. Menendez.

Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Menendez has authored or co-authored almost every Iran sanctions bill in recent years. Speaking to Norpac, he praised the U.S.-Israel relationship and called for a continued tough line with Iran.

“An Iran with nuclear weapons capability is – not would be, is – an existential threat to the State of Israel. It is also a threat to the national security interests of the United States,” he said.

A nuclear capability would embolden Iran to be even more aggressive in the region where it already “persists in supporting, financing and exporting terror,” he said. “A nuclear Iran would unleash an arms race in the world’s most dangerous tinderbox.”

The senator flatly rejected any movement that calls for boycotts of or divestment from Israel, and called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to choose between peace with Israel or peace with Hamas.

“President Abbas must choose between a future that envisions a two-state solution, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state having peace and security, and a Palestinian state with prosperity for the Palestinian people; or, a marriage with a terrorist organization that will never achieve that dream.”

That marriage, he continued, has consequences under U.S. law, which labels Hamas a terrorist organization.

Following the plenary, Norpac’s advocates split into groups to meet with Congressional members around Capitol Hill. The high turnout of Norpac members and “substantial” discussions in the meetings made the trip “a very meaningful mission,” said Norpac’s president, Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood. Typically, about half of the Congressional members delegate the meetings to legislative aides and briefly pop in, but Dr. Chouake said the feedback he has received shows that more representatives than usual joined the in-depth conversations.

Norpac’s members sought support on four key points: continued security assistance to Israel in the form of defense aid, particularly for anti-missile systems such as the Arrow and Iron Dome; broadening sanctions against Iran; sanctioning Hezbollah, and speaking out against the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.

This was Norpac’s 20th mission to Washington. When it began, the trip included just a handful of people; now Norpac caps participants at a little more than 1,000. The group’s members throughout the tristate area hold some 70 fundraisers in each two-year election cycle, connecting with about 15 percent of Congress, for candidates with demonstrated pro-Israel records.

Part of the Washington trip’s goal is to help Norpac members “expand their advocacy motivation” and build relationships with their congressmen, which encourages them to get involved in campaigns and host fundraisers through Norpac, Dr. Chouake said. “We like to have them feel like they want a relationship,” he said.

“What a great country this is that we can do this,” he said. “What a great group of people that takes the time and effort to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Having such a large percentage of Congress take time to meet with hundreds of pro-Israel activists is “an incredible experience to see American democracy at work,” said Anne Gontownik of Englewood, who attended the mission with her husband, Jerry, and her 29-year-old son, Zev.

What Ms. Gontownik finds most powerful about the mission, though, is the unity of participants from different political, religious, and other backgrounds, she said.

“We come together with Norpac,” she said.

Norpac prepared four talking points for its members to discuss on Capitol Hill:

Continued U.S. aid

This is standard among Israel’s advocates. In 2007, the United States signed a 10-year memorandum with Israel pledging $30 billion in security assistance over 10 years to assure Israel’s qualitative military edge. President Obama requested $3.1 billion for the 2015 fiscal year budget, and Norpac directed its members to thank Congress for its support and ask for maintaining assistance year to year.

American aid has gone toward funding Israel’s missile defense programs, such as the short-range anti-missile system Iron Dome and the long-range system David’s Sling. During Israel’s November 2012 confrontation with Hamas, Iron Dome brought down 421 rockets fired from Gaza before they could strike in Israel. David’s Sling is meant to intercept long-range ballistic missiles, such as those employed by Iran.

Increased pressure on Iran

Iran insists its fledgling nuclear program is for research and energy purposes only, while the United States, Israel, and other allies suspect Iran’s goal is to develop nuclear weapons. After Hassan Rouhani assumed the Iranian presidency in 2013, he re”“engaged Iran in negotiations with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany – the P5+1 – on Iran’s nuclear program. President Obama says that all options, including military, remain on the table, but he also is insistent on carrying out negotiations through their July deadline.

The administration’s decision to pursue a diplomatic front has complicated Norpac’s support for a tougher Iran policy, said Leon Kozak of Englewood, a member of the Norpac committee that drafted the talking points.

Given Iran’s support of Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations, and the fierce anti-Israel and anti-U.S. rhetoric of President Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and other Iranian leaders, U.S. and Israeli leaders have remained highly skeptical of the latest diplomatic push. The Obama administration has supported this push, which led to an interim agreement last year that loosened some sanctions on Iran during continued negotiations.

Despite this, Congress introduced new bills calling for tougher sanctions on Iran late last year: the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act in the House and the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act in the Senate.

“There seemed to be a very wide consensus that should the president need more sanctions they’ll be there,” Dr. Chouake said. “And should he decide he needs military force, the Congress understands the urgency of the situation and is likely to give approval.”

Hezbollah sanctions

The Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, which seeks to impose financial sanctions against Hezbollah and target its international logistics and financial networks, is now in committee in the House. The bill also seeks to designate Hezbollah a narcotics trafficking organization and a transnational criminal organization because of its drug smuggling activities in South America.

“The United States should take whatever steps are appropriate to prevent the proliferation of terrorist activities by Hezbollah, even if there may be adverse consequences in Lebanon, which are extremely unfortunate,” Mr. Kozak said.

Norpac sought support from House members for the bill and encouraged senators to support similar legislation. The legislation will limit Hezbollah’s abilities regionally and globally, according to Dr. Chouake.

“We were the first group to talk about this legislation,” he said. “We are confident it will have many more sponsors in the House and members in the Senate who had never heard of this initiative will give it greater consideration.”

Hezbollah joined Lebanon’s political arena in 2006. After a series of violent protests in 2008, Hezbollah received veto power in the government under the Qatar-negotiated Doha Agreement. Hezbollah’s entrenchment in the government creates a dilemma for nations that want to recognize Hezbollah’s terrorism but don’t want to further destabilize Lebanon. The European Union labeled Hezbollah’s armed wing a terrorist organization last year, following a contentious debate out of fear of complicating relations with Lebanon. Despite the EU’s distinction, Hezbollah does not distinguish between its armed or political wings.

“Unfortunately, the nation of Lebanon has been co- opted largely by a terrorist organization,” Mr. Kozak said. “That is a tragedy of the highest order. But on the other hand, one cannot exempt Hezbollah and Lebanon from scrutiny just because there’s a risk of destabilizing the country.”

Exposing the BDS movement

The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement has been gaining steam among Israel’s detractors, particularly on college campuses. Earlier this year, BDS activists protested the Super Bowl for accepting a commercial from Israeli company SodaStream, headquartered in the West Bank. BDS activists often claim Israel is an apartheid state and seek a one-state solution that effectively would end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

Norpac does not seek to stifle freedom of speech, Norpac leaders emphasized. The group is not asking Congress to legislate against BDS activists or any other speech protected under the First Amendment, Mr. Kozak said. He pointed to the recent case of Donald Sterling, the owner of the NBA team the Los Angeles Clippers who made racist remarks about African Americans last month. The NBA has taken steps to wrest the franchise away from Mr. Sterling.

“There are steps that can be taken short of state action, of criminal action, against individuals who engage in inappropriate speech and slanderous speech in an effort to marginalize Jews and the State of Israel,” he said. “We’re not asking for laws to prevent that. People have a right to invoke hateful statements, but they should suffer the consequences. They should be called out on it, and we encourage the congressmen to help us do that.”

Dr. Chouake pointed to the so-called 3D test, developed by Natan Sharansky and adopted by the U.S. State Department, which determines that criticism of Israel crosses the line from legitimate criticism to anti-Semitism if it contains deligitimization of Israel by denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination; if it includes a double standard by singling out Israel while ignoring human-rights abuses by other countries; and if it demonizes Israel by distorting its faults. Norpac asked congressional leaders for help in recognizing the illegitimacy of BDS, and in speaking out against BDS.

“The Natan Sharansky three Ds simplifies how to look at these matters in a way that deepens your understanding of them and makes you more aware of what is legitimate criticism and what is anti-Semitism,” Dr. Chouake said. “From the point of view we were able to define it in an easily recognizable manner, they can at the very least recognize it better when they see it.”

Norpac supports candidates on both sides of the aisle who demonstrate pro-Israel records. Historically, support for Israel has been stronger in the U.S. Congress than any other government branch or body, according to Rabbi Menachem Genack, kashrut administrator of the Orthodox Union, religious leader of Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, and a founding member of Norpac.

“When you speak to these members of Congress, especially on a bipartisan level, you see tremendous support,” Rabbi Genack said. “It’s something Jewish-Americans should be very gratified by.”

Norpac brought a bipartisan group for meetings with Republicans and Democrats, but the day began with the fiery and partisan speech by Ted Cruz at the opening plenary. Mr. Cruz, a Texas Republican who is strongly backed by the Tea Party, reaffirmed his support for Israel and blasted the Obama administration for “repeatedly refused to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s historic capital,” and a “long series of damaging comments and positions we have seen that have undermined our relationship with the nation of Israel.”

He pointed to a November 2013 statement by Secretary Kerry calling Israeli West Bank settlements illegitimate, and the secretary’s February 2014 warning that the peace process’s failure could result in Israel’s isolation. He further likened President Obama’s 2011 call for an Israeli-Palestinian border along the pre-1967 lines as a U.S. demand that Israel unilaterally retreat from the West Bank.

“The Palestinians believe the settlements are illegal. The United States has said they believe the settlements are not helpful and are illegitimate,” Mr. Cruz said. “Why is the United States of America hectoring and attacking Israel? That does not further the process of peace.”

Anyone threatening to boycott Israel should face direct and immediate consequences from the United States, Mr. Cruz said.

Just as Mr. Cruz strongly supported Israel in his speech, he was equally vehement in his attacks against President Obama and his administration.

“The American secretary of state is blaming the nation of Israel and not the terrorists who are murdering Israeli civilians,” he said. “And the administration has blamed Israel, not the Palestinians who refuse to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist – a fundamental predicate to have the beginnings of a conversation.”

Of the four speakers, Mr. Cruz was the only one who used the platform to deliver a partisan message. Mr. Menendez made note of this when he took the podium and quipped, “I will not give you a partisan diatribe – nor am I running for president.”

In her introductory remarks for Mr. Menendez, Ms. Weinberg praised Norpac for its commitment to the democratic process, Israel, and for “getting Loretta Weinberg on the same stage as Ted Cruz.”

The U.S.-Israel relationship is a bipartisan issue and Norpac is dedicated to maintaining that stance, according to Dr. Chouake.

“Most people who care about this issue are very grateful for the bipartisan nature of it,” he said. “Most people by and large recognize that’s not what we are.”

During his plenary address, Mr. Engel said pundits often call Congress dysfunctional, arguing that its members can’t agree on anything.

“That may be true on other issues, but when it comes to Israel everyone comes together because Israel is our best ally in the world,” he said to loud applause.

The meetings on the Hill were off the record, but Norpac and Congressional members spoke positively about them afterward. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9 9th Dist.), whose district includes much of Bergen County, said he enjoyed meeting with constituents and had “a good conversation” with his group, which included Ms. Weinberg. In a statement to the Jewish Standard Mr. Pascrell said he has always supported U.S. financial and military aid to Israel, particularly for Iron Dome, and that he was a “proud” co-sponsor of the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act.

“I value my close relationship with our large and diverse Jewish-American community and welcome having their viewpoints inform my work in the House of Representatives,” Mr. Pascrell said in the statement.

In a similar statement to this paper, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5 5th Dist.), who represents New Jersey’s northernwestern tip, pledged to continue to “stand with Israel against unfair economic retaliations, boycotts and security threats in the interest of protecting the United States and our allies around the world.”

In January, 134 members of the House signed a letter condemning the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel as “blatant disregard for academic freedom” and “thinly-veiled bigotry and bias against the Jewish State.” Mr. Pascrell signed on to the letter. Mr. Garrett did not; instead, he sent his own letter to ASA’s president condemning the boycott.

Requests for comment from New Jersey’s Democratic freshman senator, Cory Booker, were not answered immediately.

Rabbi Steven Weil, the Orthodox Union’s senior managing director, was on his fourth Norpac mission. He praised Congress’s ability to overcome partisanship when it comes to Israel.

“There is real sincere cooperation on both sides of the aisle and that is a beautiful thing in a world of debate, fighting and partisanship,” he said. “One thing everyone can agree on is the American-Israel relationship.”

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