The Cable

Exclusive: Powerful Pro-Israel Lawmaker Suddenly Pulls Pro-Israel Bill

Facing a difficult vote that would have forced Democrats to choose sides between the White House and members of the pro-Israel community, Senator Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, removed a key piece of pro-Israel legislation from the committee's agenda, according to congressional aides familiar with the matter.

The bill, the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, would expand cooperation between the two nations in a number of areas, including defense, intelligence, energy, and homeland security. The legislation enjoys broad bipartisan support and would have likely passed the foreign relations committee. But Menendez surprised Republicans by calling off a vote on the bill after it became clear that the committee's ranking member, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), planned to introduce an amendment related to the Obama administration's nuclear talks with Iran that would have forced Democrats to make a politically difficult choice in the run up to this year's midterm elections.

Should President Obama reach a deal with Iran and five other world powers to restrain the country's nuclear program, the Corker measure would have forced the president to submit the full plan to Congress within three days. The amendment would then give Congress the right to hold a "vote of disapproval" on the final deal and make way for hearings on the matter. Notably, the legislation would not give Congress the power to block the deal, only to express its will on the issue. 

Such a vote would have likely divided Democrats torn between standing behind the White House's hard-fought diplomatic efforts and members of the pro-Israel community, many of whom are deeply skeptical of an Iran deal.

In a statement Monday evening, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization, gave support to Corker's amendment. "AIPAC supports provisions such as the Corker Amendment which underscore the key role that Congress must play in defining the terms of an acceptable deal and its implementation," an AIPAC official said.

A spokesman for Menendez declined to comment. One Senate aide, speaking against the new measure, said Corker's amendment didn't belong in a bill pertaining to the U.S.-Israel partnership. "It is deeply disappointing that a bipartisan bill cosponsored by over 60 senators sending a strong message extending far beyond the United States ... is being politicized when it should be passed," said the aide. "This is the right bill for the right time as the United States and Israel continue to make advances in technology, homeland security, agriculture, and other areas. It is not the appropriate vehicle to legislate on Iran." He also expressed frustration that the amendment was introduced just days before the markup of the bill, which had been in the works for more than a year. 

Many in the pro-Israel community have argued that the Iran nuclear issue is part and parcel of any pro-Israel legislation given the perception that the nuclear program is an existential threat to the Jewish state. However, the amendment has also been viewed by some as a political tool aimed at driving a wedge between pro-Israel Democrats. AIPAC has traditionally avoided legislation aimed at politicizing the Israel issue in favor of support for bipartisan legislation.

When asked directly about the Corker amendment, a senior U.S. administration official declined to oppose or support it.  "Preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon has been a top priority for the administration, toward which we have worked diligently with Congress and our international partners," said the official. "The administration is fully committed to continuing to brief and consult closely with Congress so that the United States government speaks with one voice and does not undermine our negotiators' efforts to achieve a strong deal that will protect our interests and those of our partners and the international community." The official sent a follow up e-mail saying the administration does officially oppose the Corker amendment.

This post has been updated. 

The Cable

Russia Says U.N. Turns Blind Eye to Ukraine's Rights Abuses

Russia on Friday took aim at the United Nations and other international human rights monitors, claiming that their assessments of conditions in Ukraine fell far off the mark and were distorted by the biases of Kiev's pro-Western supporters.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing the U.N.'s chief human rights watchdog of justifying "punitive" military operations by Kiev against civilians in southeastern Ukraine, downplaying the number of casualties, and falsely blaming "pro-Russian forces" for rights abuses in the region.

The Russian protest reflects Moscow's frustration that misdeeds allegedly committed by Ukraine's ultranationalist militants have not figured more prominently in the U.N.'s reporting on human rights abuses in the country. And the protest highlights the degree to which Russia fears that it is badly losing the struggle for the moral high ground in the international court of public opinion.

May 16's outburst by Russia followed the release of reports by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights that highlight abuse by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The U.N. report flatly declared Russia's annexation of Crimea "unlawful."

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said Friday that the report highlights "an alarming deterioration in the human rights situation in the east of the country, as well as serious problems emerging in Crimea, especially in relation to the Crimean Tatars."

In a veiled swipe at Russia, she urged "those with influence on the armed groups responsible for much of the violence in eastern Ukraine to do their utmost to rein in these men who seem bent on tearing the country apart."

Pillay said that militants on both sides of Ukraine's deepening political crisis had used violence against peaceful protesters, but the report said the attacks fell on "mainly those in support of Ukraine's unity and against the lawlessness in the cities and villages in eastern Ukraine. In most cases, local police did nothing to prevent violence, while in some cases it openly cooperated with the attackers."

A few hours after she spoke, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement claiming that the U.N. report "actually justifies the criminal punitive operation in the southeast of Ukraine, conceals casualties among peaceful civilians, [and] makes an attempt to put the blame for the committed violations of human rights on the 'pro-Russian forces."

Konstantin Dolgov, a senior Russian diplomat, meanwhile, took aim at a separate report by the OSCE that detailed conditions for Crimean minorities and abuses by separatists in eastern Ukraine. "It lacks information about growing neo-Nazism, xenophobia, ultra-nationalism, and anti-Semitism in Ukraine," he said.

"The OSCE mission seems to have no interest in the destructive role of the Maidan activists and the punitive operation against [the] civilian population in Ukraine's southeastern regions," he said, referring to the Euromaidan protest movement that sparked the downfall of Ukraine's pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. "Instead, the authors, upon the slimmest of evidence, speak about alleged human rights violations in Russia's Republic of Crimea and Ukraine's southeastern regions."

The 37-page U.N. report, which tracked similar issues as the OSCE report did, accuses pro-Russian militants and radical right-wing Ukrainian groups of targeting gays and lesbians with hate speech and violence. It claims that "armed groups" in separatist towns in eastern Ukraine "continue to illegally seize and occupy public and administrative buildings" and to attack journalists and other civilians.

The report also calls on the Ukrainian government to carry out a "prompt, transparent and comprehensive investigation" into the May 2 demonstrations in Odessa that descended into violent clashes between pro-Kiev and pro-Russian protesters. At least 46 people died, including 38 in a fire at a trade union building that supporters of closer ties with Russia were occupying, and roughly 230 people were injured. Russia has cited the incident as evidence of the pro-unity militants' barbarism.

The U.N. report also expresses alarm over the intimidation of several of the 23 candidates competing in Ukraine's May 25 presidential election, including those hoping to represent the country's Russian-speaking east. "Several candidates have reported facing arbitrary restrictions, hate speech, intimidation and violent attacks during their election campaigning," according to the report.

On April 14, two "pro-Russian" candidates, Mykhailo Dobkin and Oleg Tsariov, were attacked at the media headquarters of the national TV station, ICTV. Two weeks later, a group of 250 pro-unity activists prevented Dobkin from getting off a plane at an airport in the city of Kherson. Tsariov withdrew from the race on May 1. Threats were also leveled against representatives of the pro-Kiev Radical Party candidate Oleh Liashko.

The report expresses particular concern about the treatment of ethnic minorities in Crimea, particular the Crimean Tatars, since Russia annexed the Russian-speaking Ukrainian peninsula. Residents who failed to meet an April 18 deadline to apply for Russian citizenship "are facing harassment and intimidation."

On April 29, a group of Crimean Tatars who had not obtained Russian citizenship were prevented from entering Crimea. Crimean authorities have reportedly compiled a list of 344 individuals, including a prominent former Tatar lawmaker, Mustafa Jemilev, who are allegedly "engaged in anti-Crimean activity," according to the report. More than 7,000 Tatars have left Crimea, settling in more than half a dozen Ukrainian towns. Many are planning to seek asylum in Europe or Turkey.

The report also detailed abuses against journalists working to cover the crisis.

Crimean media outlets that have fallen out of favor with Russian authorities, the report said, have been forced to move their editorial offices to mainland Ukraine "due to fear for their personal safety and impediments they were facing in their work."

In eastern Ukraine, the U.N. report added, international and local journalists, bloggers, and other media representatives "are facing increasing threats and acts of intimidation, including abduction and unlawful detention by armed groups." Altogether, at least 23 journalists, including a reporter from BuzzFeed and his interpreter, "have been abducted and unlawfully detained."

Photo by Yuri Kodobnov/ AFP/ Getty Images