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Jewish Priorities to Watch for in Washington in 2013

January 3, 2013 By:
Ron Kampeas, JTA
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President Obama addresses the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism on Dec. 16, 2011. (URJ Photo)

WASHINGTON — Will we still head into a fiscal crisis? Plunge into war with Iran? Dive into contentious confirmation battles? One thing’s for certain: There will be plenty of action in Washington that the Jewish community will be watching closely this year. Here are some likely focal points:

Fiscal Crisis

Although President Barack Obama and Congress averted the fiscal cliff as the new year dawned, many tough issues were left unresolved, including cuts in spending and the debt ceiling. More negotiations will mean more intensive lobbying from the Jewish groups that serve the elderly and poor.

The Jewish Federations of North America welcomed the compromise that was reached, including maintaining the charitable contribution tax deduction at its current level, and said it would  continue to lobby against spending cuts that would disproportionately affected the nation’ most vulnerable.

“Spending cuts should not unfairly target the most vulnerable among us, whose lifelines are dependent on critical assistance programs, and tax policy should encourage charitable giving, especially during times of economic distress,” said William Daroff, JFNA’s vice president for public policy. “As demands on nonprofits continue to grow, we must ensure that the tax code continues to promote giving and enables charities to meet the rising demand for critical community-based services.”

Israel

With Obama facing down fiscal issues, contending with turmoil in the Arab world and pursuing negotiations with Iran, the conventional wisdom is that the president is not likely to make an aggressive push to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, at least for the time being.

A number of emerging factors, however, could renew U.S. involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli arena.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's slew of recent West Bank and eastern Jerusalem building announcements -- announced in retaliation for the Palestinians' successful bid for statehood recognition in the U.N. General Assembly -- has earned a rebuke from the Obama administration. If Netanyahu wins Israeli elections on Jan. 22 and, as expected, forms another right-wing government, he may feel domestic political pressure to accelerate building in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority will be watching closely. It already has announced its intention to call for a renewal of negotiations with the precondition that Netanyahu freeze building in settlements and eastern Jerusalem. If that does not happen, Palestinian leaders say they will use their new U.N.-conferred status to seek war crimes charges against Israelis and suspend the security cooperation that has left the West Bank relatively quiet.

In this event, Israel likely would ask for U.S. diplomatic assistance to inhibit any Palestinian standing in the international court system. The collapse of Israeli-Palestinian defense cooperation -- seen as a signature U.S. policy achievement over successive administrations -- could force President Obama into crisis management mode.

Other sources of regional turmoil that likely will pose challenges for the U.S. in the new year include an empowered Hamas, the struggle in Egypt fueled by the power seizures of President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist backers, and the civil war in Syria.

Iran

Ending months of tensions with Obama over what would be the trigger for a military strike on Iran, Netanyahu, in his September speech to the U.N. General Assembly, gave the United States some space to press forward with efforts to resume negotiations between Iran and the six major powers attempting to get it to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program. Such talks may resume before the end of 2012.

Reportedly on the table from the United States are a lifting of some sanctions -- including one that bans the sale of parts for civilian aircraft -- and allowing Iran to enrich uranium to civilian-use levels, up to 5 percent. In exchange, Iran would agree to a much more intrusive inspections regimen by the International Atomic Energy, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Those terms do not please the pro-Israel community. A letter backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee urging Obama to enhance existing sanctions and insist on no uranium enrichment has garnered the signatures of 73 U.S. senators.

The Iranian nuclear issue could be a source of tension between the Obama administration and Congress over the next year. And if talks fail to yield progress, the debate over Israeli or U.S. military action could heat up again.

U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is considering at least two hot-button social issues that Jewish groups have weighed in on: same-sex marriage and affirmative action. Liberal Jewish groups have been strong supporters of same-sex marriage. Orthodox opponents of same-sex marriage worry that their religious freedom could be curtailed -- for example, by penalizing a kosher caterer for refusing to provide services for a same-sex wedding.

The court will be weighing the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed in the 1990s and defined marriage as only between a man and a woman, as well as a California court ruling quashing a referendum that sought to ban same-sex marriage in that state. Liberal Jewish groups plan to join amicus briefs supporting same-sex marriage, while at least one Orthodox group, Agudath Israel of America, has indicated it will be filing on the other side.

Also on the docket, once again: Race-based affirmative action in public university admissions. But whereas in previous cases major Jewish groups have been divided on the issue, this time they have lined up in support of the university policy favoring affirmative action. The Supreme Court already has heard arguments in the case, and its ruling is pending.

Liberal Jewish groups also are considering joining a defense of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires states once afflicted by Jim Crow to pre-clear district changes with Washington. Conservatives on the court have signaled that they are ready to retire the act.

Obama’s reelection, meanwhile, clears the way for the court’s two older liberal judges to step down, although neither of them -- Stephen Breyer, age 74, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 79 -- have suggested they’re interested in leaving. Ginsburg and Breyer, like the most recent appointee, Elena Kagan, are Jewish.

Justice Antonin Scalia reportedly has told friends he’s thinking about retiring -- but the staunch conservative may try to stick around until there is a Republican president to pick his successor.

Cabinet Nominations

Even before Obama made a single nomination, some of the leading candidates for Cabinet posts in his second term were facing withering scrutiny.

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), the rumored leading contender for defense secretary, has drawn a torrent of criticism centered on his skepticism about the efficacy of Iran sanctions, his irritation with what he once referred to as “the Jewish lobby,” and his calls for a degree of engagement with terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

Right-wing and centrist Jewish groups have been among his critics, while left-wing Jewish groups such as J Street have rallied to his defense.

A number of U.S. senators, including Kelley Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), have already said they will press Hagel to make clearer his views on Iran and terrorism if he is nominate.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Obama's pick to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, will have an easier run; a number of top Republicans already have said they are ready to approve the nomination.

Pro-Israel groups generally have a good relationship with Kerry, who was the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004. Kerry has a strong pro-Israel voting record, but he also has been outspoken at times in criticizing Israeli policy, particularly during Israel's blockade of Gaza.

Also rumored for the Cabinet: Jack Lew, Obama's chief of staff, who is believed to be a frontrunner to be Timothy Geithner's successor as Treasury Dept. secretary.

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