Senators talk security to Orthodox audience

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark). Photo courtesy OU Advocacy Center.

Democratic and Republican senators disagreed sharply about the recently concluded $38 billion U.S. military aid package for Israel as they spoke at a lunchtime gathering of Orthodox Jews who came to Washington last week to lobby Congress for more funds for security for the Jewish religious and education institutions.

Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) criticized the deal because, he said, it is conditioned on Israeli spending all the aid money in the United States, rather than in Israel.

“Now the Israelis spend about 75 percent of the money we give them on United States industries,” Cotton said, referring to an aid agreement that will expire in 2018. “That’s a good thing for us, obviously, because it provides American jobs. [But] by forcing them to spend all that money in the United States, we may forestall critical technological developments that are not just good for Israel and their industries, but for us.”

He called for rescinding the agreement once the next president is sworn into office.

Cotton was among seven senators, many of whom praised the aid package, to address the group of about 100 members of the Orthodox Union. The Republican received  substantial applause when, while downplaying Israeli settlements, he humorously referred to them as “apartments or condominiums.”

The senators also discussed domestic concerns about anti-Semitism directed at Jewish institutions. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said she was planning to push for more funding for the Urban Areas Security Initiative, or UASI, a grant set aside by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to equip urban communities with the necessary resources to combat terrorism. The New York Democrat said she was committed protecting New York’s Jewish schools and synagogues.

“I promise you that I will keep fighting to keep those funds as high as they need to be to keep all of our schools and synagogues safe,” she told the OU members, who were seeking increased funding for security at Jewish day schools, yeshivot and synagogues.

Gillibrand said it was imperative to fight the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he is working on legislation with Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman that would prohibit the United States from trade with countries that participate in any BDS.

“The most important thing this Congress can do is strengthen our laws against BDS.”

Two days before the lunch, 88 senators signed a letter urging President Barack Obama to reject any United Nations intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would not lead to a two-state solution.

“Even well-intentioned initiatives at the United Nations risk locking the parties into positions that will make it more difficult to return to the negotiating table and make the compromises necessary for peace,” it read.

The letter was seen as a way to head off peace plans imposed by the world body on Israel, which Israel opposes and the Palestinians support.

In an interview with Washington Jewish Week after lunch, Gillibrand, who helped initiate the letter, challenged the United Nations to firmly commit to a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians.

“The U.N. is often used as a platform for anti-Semitism and I wanted to make sure that the U.N. doesn’t sidestep direct negotiations or somehow undermine direct negotiations,” she said. “We need a two state-solution and that can only be reached by the parties sitting together and ironing it out.”

Cardin, who also signed the letter, echoed Gillibrand’s concerns about the international community isolating Israel.

“We know that Israel is going to be lonely up in New York,” he said, referring to the U.N. General Assembly then underway. “They have only one true, trusted friend that has influence in New York and that’s the United States. It’s just another reason why this special relationship needs to be nurtured at all times.”

Other senators speaking at the OU lunch were Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

Among the 12 senators who didn’t sign the letter was former presidential hopeful and Texas Republican Ted Cruz. He had been invited to the lunch but did not attend.

In a statement he said, “This matter is an internal one for Israel to decide, and it is not the place of the United States — or the United Nations — to impose a solution on a sovereign nation.”

Washington Jewish Week caught up with Cruz elsewhere in the Capitol. Asked about his position, he said he was not concerned if his disagreement with other Republicans could be a problem.

“I think we should stand unapologetically in support of the nation of Israel,” he said.

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