|House majority leader Eric Cantor addresses the gathering. Courtesy norpac|
Last Wednesday the members of NORPAC traveling to Washington on their annual mission to garner support for Israel had a special challenge: The turnover in Congress after the last election gave them 100 new faces to see.
“It was a tremendous success,” said Richard Schlussel, mission chairman, reiterating the importance of connecting with the new members of Congress. “The reception was overwhelmingly favorable.”
The mission brought some 1,100 members to Washington to speak to on Israel’s behalf, said NORPAC president Ben Chouake. Packing the Washington Convention Center ballroom, the record number of members was addressed by House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.).
The volunteers then split up into 125 groups of eight each and fanned out to meet with 470 members of Congress and/or their staffs. The meetings were by appointment, and “we were very grateful for the reception,” said Chouake.
NORPAC, the National Organization for Political Action, began in 1992 in the Teaneck-Englewood area, Chouake said. Its name then was the New Jersey PAC.
|Sen. Robert Menendez greets Tamar Fishweicher, a Ma’ayanot student, during the NORPAC mission. courtesy Abraham Fishweicher|
Chouake explained that the delegation approached the mission with “talking points” in four areas: aid to Israel; aid to the Palestinian Authority; Iran sanctions; and the Mideast peace process.
On the first, Chouake said aid to Israel, which in effect is all for military needs, is vital for its security. Of the $3.075 billion proposed, Chouake said, 75 percent will find its way back to the United States for contracts with U.S. vendors. A separate $205 million is sought for the Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system.
“This year this is a much more difficult issue” because of the U.S. budget crisis, he said. But the cost is justified because it bolsters the security of a democratic ally in a troubled region, and Israel is an intelligence and strategic partner for the United States there, he continued.
On the second point, NORPAC is asking for a closer look at aid to the Palestinian Authority: $400 million in general aid and $150 million in security aid. “We ask that [the aid] be linked to an end to incitement,” Chouake said. “American dollars should not be funding a culture of hatred,” he said, citing inflammatory messages in Palestinian schools and on television.
“People understand that what is going on is deeply contrary to American values,” he said.
On the third point, Iran, Chouake said NORPAC is urging passage of the Iran Transparency and Accountability Act, which would tighten previous sanctions and push enforcement. The legislation is pending in the House and Senate and is awaiting potential cosponsors to help move it forward, Chouake said.
On the fourth point, the peace process, he said the Palestinian Authority must return to direct negotiations. “They walked away and they must come back,” he said, noting that they are legally bound to do so by the Oslo accords and the Quartet agreement. (The Quartet is composed of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia.) The lack of “good faith is very disappointing,” he said.
Of President Obama, Chouake said, as the leader of the United States “he is the most powerful person in the world” and has “a lot on his plate. I hope he’ll stand strong and do what he can.”
It was “gratifying” that so many volunteers took the time for the trip to Washington, Chouake said. “We are American citizens with something to say,” he added.
Members of last week’s mission came mostly from the metropolitan area but 17 states were represented in all, Chouake said.
The missions started small in the 1990s, just filling one bus, Chouake said. This year members received the biggest reception yet, connecting with 97 percent of the Senate and 90 percent of the House.
Chouake said it was the quality of the meetings that counted, not just the numbers. “They gave us a lot of time … where we could really go through the issues in detail,” he said. He said NORPAC has established a good reputation on Capitol Hill of “providing good information well presented.”
“The facts speak for themselves,” Chouake said of the NORPAC message. “There is a stark contrast between decency and terrorism.”
Unlike professional lobbysists, NORPAC members are “volunteers speaking from the heart; it’s very inspiring,” he added.