Washington, D.C. — On Wednesday, May 17, some 1,000 pro-Israel advocates descended on Capitol Hill to meet with nearly every member of Congress. They were part of the annual Norpac mission to Washington, which this year promoted a continued focus on Iran and its terrorist proxies.
Buses from Englewood, Fair Lawn, Monsey, N.Y., and New York City carried the advocates to the Capitol on behalf of the northern New Jersey-based pro-Israel political action committee. The advocates met with staffers at the offices of more than 90 percent of House and Senate members to press them or thank them for their support. This year’s Norpac talking points focused on four themes: continued security assistance for Israel; ensuring Iranian accountability, both in terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement and Iran’s sponsorship of global terror; broader and harsher sanctions against Hezbollah; and educating against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
“We’re citizen advocates,” Norpac’s president, Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood said; Norpac’s trip is not a lobbying mission, he added, because lobbyists are registered and paid professionals. “When somebody’s meeting a paid professional versus a volunteer who’s doing it from their heart — travels hours in a day, takes off from work — it’s a lot more powerful a statement.
“Generally, the members recognize the power of citizen advocacy. They feel a certain camaraderie with the people who come in.”
Upon arriving in Washington, the advocates were greeted by some friendly voices in Congress before splitting into groups at the Capitol. New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez addressed the crowd at the historic Warner Theater in downtown Washington. “American Jews have as much right as any other Americans to engage in the political system and affect the course of events,” Mr. Menendez said, calling Dr. Chouake the “ultimate Zionist.”
“It is in the national interest and security of the United States to have a strong, unwavering relationship with the State of Israel, the one true democracy in a sea of autocracy,” Mr. Menendez continued. He cited the passage of last year’s Memorandum of Understanding, which provides Israel with $38 billion in funding over a 10-year period beginning in 2018.
Mr. Menendez—one of the architects of the U.S. sanctions package against Iran’s nuclear program—said that despite claims that its nuclear program is for energy and research, Iran doesn’t need nuclear power for energy because of its vast oil reserves. Iran continues to represent an “existential threat” to Israel and the United States must do everything it can to restrain Iran, he said.
One of the pieces of legislation the Norpac members advocated for was the Senate bill called the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017. Mr. Menendez called the bill “a critical piece of legislation” to counter Iran’s continued destabilizing activities in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. The bill calls for terrorism sanctions on any entity affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the paramilitary organization tasked with protecting and spreading the ideals of the Iranian revolution. The United States already has sanctioned the Quds Force, the IRGC’s external wing that liaises with Hezbollah, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and other international terrorism groups. The new bill calls for sanctions against the IRGC as a whole. In the House, representatives are considering the Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Act, which threatens sanctions on any person or entity facilitating Iranian development of ballistic missiles.
Addressing another of Norpac’s concerns, Mr. Menendez called the BDS movement a “material threat” to Israel, and said that no country that wants access to U.S. markets should be allowed to participate in BDS against Israel. Acknowledging that members of President Trump’s administration recently said that the Western Wall is not part of Israel, Mr. Menendez reaffirmed that the Western Wall and Jerusalem are both part of the Jewish state.
“It’s critically important that there be no separation, none whatsoever, between the United States and Israel,” Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland told the Norpac group. BDS “is an effort to challenge the legitimacy of the state of Israel and it’s used to hide anti-Semitism — and sometimes they don’t even hide it.”
Maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge and missile defense, as well as educating about the existential threat of Iran, have been among Norpac’s main goals for several years, mission co-chair Dr. Laurie Baumel of Teaneck said. This year’s mission continued to focus on those key issues as well as on the ongoing threat of Hezbollah and BDS.
In December 2015, President Obama signed the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act, which threatened sanctions against Lebanese financial institutions tied to Hezbollah. A draft bill is circulating in the House to add an amendment targeting Lebanese political leaders.
After he was elected president of Lebanon last year, Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun has made public statements supporting Hezbollah and indicating that the Lebanese Armed Forces would fight in conjunction with Hezbollah against Israel. The House draft bill could target Aoun and other Lebanese politicians allied with the terror group.
Norpac members also asked members of Congress to reevaluate U.S. financial aid to the LAF, which receives $200 to 250 million annually.
“One time that was a benefit, because there was the assumption it was an offset to Hezbollah,” Dr. Chouake said. “There’s no daylight between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah any more, so giving money to the Lebanese army is giving money to Hezbollah.”
Dr. Chouake and Dr. Baumel both praised Norpac’s volunteers for taking time away from work or school to spend the day in Washington. This dedication has not gone unnoticed on the Hill.
“Norpac is looked upon as the shining example of how a community can come together to have impact in our political system in the right way,” Mr. Cardin said. Norpac’s involvement has inspired communities in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere to be increasingly active, he added.
Though Norpac is a bipartisan organization, growing divisiveness in Congress has affected Norpac’s strategy, Dr. Baumel said. While Israel used to be one of the few solidly bipartisan issues in Congress, that is no longer the case. “They no longer have Israel as that only point they agree upon, so we have to work harder,” she said. “Our goal is to come to Congress to cultivate broad bipartisan support for legislation that will secure Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
For more information on Norpac, its activities, and how to get involved, go to www.norpac.net.