Posted on March 06, 2014 in Countdown

Congress Passes US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act 

A significant portion of the House of Representatives doesn’t think it’s a big deal to grant special privileges to countries with a track record of discriminating against Americans. That’s certainly the message they sent yesterday when they passed H.R. 938, the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, which garnered 354 cosponsors and is coauthored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and Ranking Member Ted Deutch (D-FL). We have written to you numerous times about the section of that bill that sought to include Israel in the Visa Waiver Program. From day one, we have fervently opposed this legislation due to Israel’s systematic discrimination against Arab Americans, American Muslims, and Americans with whom they disagree with politically. Despite our opposition, the bill came up under suspensions, which means it was deemed non-controversial. Some pro-Israel groups pushed to include language in the bill that would admit Israel into the Visa Waiver Program without meeting key requirements of the program, including granting reciprocal travel privileges to U.S. citizens traveling to Israel. So, in addition to not speaking up against rampant discrimination against Americans, if passed, that language would have codified Israel’s discrimination. How about that for advocacy? Because of your letters and calls to your Representatives, this troubling language never made it in the House bill and only includes a statement of policy (which is not binding) to admit Israel in the Visa Waiver Program when it satisfies the requirements of the program—something we all know it will never live up to while discrimination continues at the border.

Back to the Future with Russia?

Has Mitt Romney been vindicated? After calling Russia the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe” in 2012 and being jibed for his blast from the past rhetoric on Russia by President Obama, it looks like Russian President Vladmir Putin really does deserve Forbes magazine’s 2013 title of “Most Powerful Person.” Recent events in Ukraine have implications for an important Middle East issue involving Putin: the crisis in Syria. The United States has continually asserted that Russia is a key inhibitor to a political solution in Syria and as attention has shifted to Ukraine, some are now claiming that Syria’s President Bashar al Assad has “won the war in Syria” after his army reportedly closed in on opposition forces in  Yabroud, a strategically significant city in Syria. This comes amid news that Assad is quietly preparing for reelection, dashing hopes for a diplomatic path that could lead to a political transition with support and pressure from Assad’s backers, like Russia. Before Russia moved into Crimea, it supported, alongside the United States, UN Security Council Resolution 2139 condemning the Assad regime’s humanitarian abuses. The passing of the largely rhetorical and watered down resolution makes sense in retrospect, given Russia’s expectation that the international community’s would disregard Syria in light of events in Ukraine. It is apparent that the Obama administration’s status quo diplomatic path on Syria may be at a dead end, and Ukraine only complicates the Syrian crisis. Maybe the United States will find an opportune moment to press Russia on Syria while it becomes bogged down on Ukraine. Otherwise, Romney’s blast from the past rhetoric may become a “back to the future” reality. 

Seeking the Second Class of Gabr Fellows

Last year, an incredible initiative to impact the way the U.S. and Egypt view each other and work together politically and economically was launched. That initiative was a Fellowship – the Gabr Fellowship to be exact. Established by The Shafik Gabr Foundation, the Gabr Fellowship brings together a group of 20 emerging leaders from across Egypt and the U.S. - 10 Egyptians and 10 Americans. Fellows meet with world-renowned public figures to explore transnational challenges faced by their societies and to gain insight into the diversity within Egyptian and American societies, traditions, politics, business, governance, art, law, media, customs and religions. Leveraging their expertise and the depth of the exchange, Fellows work together on collaborative action projects. The action projects address common challenges facing Egyptian and American societies and take shape in really cool ways including setting up interactive TV screens in different cities and establishing microclinics in rural areas in need. The projects serve to broaden the impact of the Gabr Fellowship to the Fellows' peers, communities and societies with the goal of sustainable bridge building across both the east and west. Plus, it’s really fun. The application deadline is March 31, so check out the requirements and get crackin’.

An Awkwardly Noticeable Oversight

Last week, POLITICO Magazine took a stab at highlighting the United States’ “25 most awkward allies,” which included countries like Azerbaijan, Kenya, Turkey, Vietnam and a total of eight Arab countries in what they called “a damning, revelatory collection of reports…about the ‘imperfect choices’ the United States has made.”  We here on the Countdown team feel it was worthwhile to add one more awkward ally to the list, because what difference can one more make? As the highest recipient of U.S. foreign aid Israel is not only an indisputable U.S. ally, but has also had its fair share of “awkward” moments with the United States. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a constant source of trouble for the Obama administration, [remember president Obama venting to a frustrated Nicolas Sarkozy, “You’re tired of him…what about me? I have to deal with him every day!”]. Israel doubled settlement construction last year and Netanyahu has continually created new hoops for Palestinians to jump through. Netanyahu vacillates between welcome rhetoric on finding a lasting peace agreement, and pressing the U.S. on hardline positions like forcing Palestine to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” While the money continues to flow to Israel, Congress and other elected officials have to also contend with AIPAC’s efforts of persuasion on key legislative efforts and U.S. policy, whether Iran sanctions, waiving Israel’s visa requirements, or influencing policy on Syria – but hey, Congress gets free trips to Israel as well. It’s no wonder President Obama had some tough words for Netanyahu just as the Prime Minister was on his way to the United States for his twelfth visit with the President. [If Secretary Kerry really scoffed at Obama’s assertion that Kerry and Netanyahu held “productive” meetings in Washington this week, we wouldn’t be surprised.] 

John Boehner Wants Help from Obama

We don’t believe he said please, but in an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer this week, which covered a broad range of issues including healthcare, the budget, immigration, and his cooking habits, House Speaker John Boehner asked for Obama’s help on immigration. “He wants to get it done. I want to get it done,” he told the Enquirer. “But he’s going to have to help us in this process.” What he means is that Obama isn’t doing enough to secure the border. But aren’t we? In fact, the U.S. is employing the Israelis to help us protect our borders. The U.S. government has awarded a $145 million contract to Elbit – the Israeli company which installed the West Bank separation wall – to implement surveillance technology along the Arizona Border with Mexico. But we digress. Boehner’s caucus is still not convinced that Obama is really committed to securing the border. So, how can the president prove his intention to honor a key Republican request? “I told the president I’ll leave that to him,” he said. We recommend you check out the article. There’s some good stuff in there, including Speaker Boehner’s opinion of Obama’s budget, how to lower healthcare costs, and Vladimir Putin.  

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