State of the Union: Jewish groups’ priorities


President Barack Obama will present his annual State of the Union address before Congress and the nation this evening. Like presidents before him, Obama has traditionally used this opportunity to lay out an ambitious agenda – and he probably still will – but it would be difficult to do so without acknowledging the saga of last year, when the great plans he touted in that State of the Union became a series of failed policy initiatives.

One of his highest priorities, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, has been plagued by errors and delays. Undoubtedly, the president will point to the success stories resulting from the legislation while reminding the public that the errors and missteps – some of which he attempted to solve through executive order – are to be expected from any monumental, but fledgling government program.

Judging from statements emanating from the White House, however, even recalcitrant Republicans might not hinder Obama, who has previously shown his willingness to use his executive authority to enact regulations without the backing of Congress; today, the office of Press Secretary Jay Carney announced that while the president will tout raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10, through Congressional passage of the Harkin-Miller bill, in tonight’s speech, he will also commit himself to using “executive authority to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for those working on new federal contracts for services.”

Other Obama accomplishments in the past year that might see a little review in the State of Union include his recent reforms in accountability and transparency, both instigated by the revelations that the Internal Revenue Service was putting extra scrutiny into their auditing of Tea Party and right-wing affiliated groups, and the National Security Agency was collecting information beyond what many Americans believed was acceptable.

What appears to interest the Jewish community most, however, is the president’s stance on the negotiations being facilitated by Secretary of State John Kerry between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the P5+1 conferences in Geneva aimed at reducing Iran’s nuclear capability. If the subject comes up tonight, the president will likely hail the Joint Plan of Action initiated earlier this month as a major breakthrough in relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran – a nation that the United States had not had diplomatic relations with in 30 years. At the same time, he will urge the public to have patience and faith in the process and urge lawmakers to not support the Menendez-Kirk bill and avoid interfering with the diplomacy currently underway.

To preview the speech, the Washington Jewish Week asked numerous leaders in the Jewish community to identify what they think should be included in the president’s speech tonight. Here are their responses:

Jewish Federations urge President Obama to reiterate his commitment to ensuring Iran does not develop a nuclear weapons capacity, while keeping “all options on the table.” Federations also urge the President to continue promoting the critical importance of charities in our society, speak out in support of Senate passage of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and to advocate for assessable long-term care for older Americans and services for their care-givers.

– William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America

I think that he will definitely address the two major issues: Iran and the Kerry initiative for the two state solution.

We know that the president is committed to this effort; what I think we would like to hear is a renewed commitment to Israel, to Israel’s security, and to the idea that this conflict with the Palestinians can be settled and it could be done now, this year. And that he will back to the hilt Secretary Kerry’s efforts, and that he will personally intervene at the right moment, and that this is a time for the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to show leadership and to take bold decisions for peace. But that the United States will always have Israel’s back and would never abandon that.

– Alan Elsner, vice president of communications at J Street

I would like the President Obama to clearly state that the United States and Israel are engaged in a shared and existential struggle with radical Islam and that the greatest threat facing the United States, Israel and most of Europe is a nuclear Iran.

I’d be encouraged to see him say that “yes, we’d like to see two states living in peace side by side, but it is unlikely to come about, as long as the Palestinians continue to teach their children that one day all of the land will be theirs. In order to achieve the lofty goal of peace, the Palestinians must end their incitement, which is based on an unjustifiable hatred that is unacceptable. If and when that day comes America will be ready to assist the Israelis and Palestinians in peace.”

On the topic of negotiations with Iran, I’d like to see the president assert that it is necessary to use all means to defeat a nuclear Iran, including negotiations, sanctions and the military option. I’d like to see the president say, “I have taken notice of the Iranians’ claim that the negotiations do not impede their goal of nuclear capability. I differ in that view, but if that is their view, then they have proceeded to negotiate in bad faith, and it is reasonable to prepare new sanctions, and I support such efforts.”

– Sarah Stern, president and founder of the Endowment for Middle East Truth

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