Obama's transition lobby rules

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November 16, 2008 @ 22:05 UTC

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Barack Obama
International Relations, Government & Politics

Obama has curtailed lobbyist efforts during the transition process, making true a promise in his campaign to crack down on federal lobbying.

But what does this mean for AIPAC, the most powerful lobby in the US?

The following NYT article explains the transition lobby rules:

Obama's Transition Team Restricts Lobbyists' Role

Helene Cooper and Jeff Zeleny
New York Times

Turning to campaign promises in which he pledged sweeping ethics restrictions, President-elect Barack Obama will bar lobbyists from helping to pay the costs of his transition to power or working for it in any area in which they have represented clients in the last year, his transition team said Tuesday.

Mr. Obama’s aides indicated that they expected the rules to apply to his inauguration as well as the transition, but said they had yet to make a final decision on how the inauguration would be paid for.

John D. Podesta, a co-chairman of the Obama transition, called the restraints “the strictest, the most far-reaching ethics rules of any transition team in history.”

“If someone has lobbied during the past 12 months, they’re prohibited from working in the fields of policy on which they lobbied and will have to cease all lobbying activities during their work on the transition,” Mr. Podesta said, speaking to reporters in the first official briefing by the transition team.

But the new rules do seem to leave some wiggle room. Aides to Mr. Obama, who declared during the campaign that lobbyists would not “find a job in my White House,” said the guidelines allowed for lobbyists to work on the transition in areas where they have not done any lobbying.

Further, the rules apply to lobbyists who must register with the federal government; many people who work for lobbying firms or in other areas of the influence business in Washington do not have to register, because they do not personally lobby federal officials on specific issues.

Mr. Podesta said he expected the transition to employ some 450 people and have a budget of about $12 million. Of that amount, $5.2 million will be paid by the government, with the remaining $6.8 million coming from private sources, he said. Contributions will be limited to $5,000, he said, and the transition will not accept money from political action committees.

During a presidential campaign in which he raised $650 million, Mr. Obama changed the rules of fund-raising, declining public financing and creating his own multimillion-member chain of donors. At least some of those contributors will be solicited for the transition.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama laid out more detailed and onerous ethics rules than any previous prospective president, pledging to bar appointees for two years from working on matters involving their former employers, to prohibit departing officials from lobbying his administration for its duration and to require all political appointees to disclose publicly every meeting with registered lobbyists.

The rules have led to some grumbling that at a time of immense challenges, an Obama administration could be excluding a pool of substantial talent by stopping people from working for the White House in the areas they know best.

“I’ve heard the complaint,” Mr. Podesta said, “which is we’re leaving all this expertise on the side, because we’re leaving all the people who know everything out in the cold. And so be it. This is a commitment that the American public expects, and it’s one that we intend to enforce during the transition.”

It remains unclear how the rules will affect the inauguration. President Bush raised more than $40 million for his second inauguration, mostly from companies and executives.

While aides to Mr. Obama say they are keenly aware that a lavish celebration might not be well received given the faltering economy, they indicate that the historic nature of Mr. Obama’s inauguration and the expectations of high turnout all but guarantee that the occasion, on Jan. 20, will be a huge one.

Yet in one early sign that the celebrations are likely to be somewhat scaled back, Mr. Obama canceled fireworks on election night in Grant Park in Chicago, telling his advisers that the times were too serious for that type of festivity.

“It’s going to be a balancing act,” one Obama aide said, “and I’m not sure how it’s going to be done.”

Rob Malley, anti-Israel?

Meanwhile, this right-wing blog explores Obama's contacts with Hamas via adviser Rob Malley:

In May 2008, TimesOnline reported that Barack Obama had “sacked” Robert Malley, his foreign policy adviser, who admitted to “regular contact” with Hamas, a U.S. State Department designated terrorist organization.

November 5, 2008 Middle East Newsline's Washington office quoted Obama aides saying that he had dispatched his “senior foreign policy adviser Robert Malley” to Egypt and Syria “over the last few weeks.

The aides said Malley, who served in the administration of President Bill Clinton, relayed a pledge from Obama that the United States would seek to enhance relations with Cairo as well as reconcile with Damascus. “The tenor of the messages was that the Obama administration would take into greater account Egyptian and Syrian interests,” an aide said.

According to this right-wing blogger, Rob Malley's father, Simon Malley, was born to a Syrian family in Cairo and “loathed Israel”.

Simon Malley was born to a Syrian family in Cairo and at an early age found his métier in political journalism. He participated in the wave of anti-imperialist and nationalist ideology that was sweeping the Third World. He wrote thousands of words in support of struggle against Western nations. In Paris, he founded the journal Afrique Asie; he and his magazine became advocates for “liberation” struggles throughout the world, particularly for the Palestinians.

Not so true, according to an interesting article on the formation of Obama's administration by The Magnes Zionist.

Rob Malley, the bugbear of rightwingers like Ed Laskey, not to mention some really slimey bloggers, has served in the past as an advisor to Barack Obama, and co-wrote the definitive analysis of the Camp David debacle in the New York Review of Books (The article isn't free). Malley is neither in nor out, according to my sources. Even though his name seems forever linked to Obama and Hamas, according to the rightwing rumor mongers, he did not contact Hamas recently on behalf of Obama campaign (the contacts, reported in Haaretz, were subsequently denied by Hamas) nor was he sent to Egypt and Syria on a mission from Obama, despite a bogus news release to that effect by the Middle East News Line. Apparently, the name “Malley” has become a synonym for “Haman” in some quarters; upon hearing it one mindlessly makes noise, no matter what the context or the truth of the story.

But Arab media reports that contacts between Hamas and Obama officials were ongoing:

Dr. Ahmad Yousef, a political adviser to the prime minister of the Hamas-led government, Ismail Haniyah, revealed Tuesday that prior to the US presidential elections, a secret meeting was held between senior officials from the Palestinian movement and President-elect Barack Obama's advisers in the Gaza Strip.

“We were in contact with a number of Obama's aides through the Internet, and later met with some of them in Gaza, but they advised us not to reveal this information as it may influence the elections or become manipulated by [Republican candidate John] McCain's campaign”, Yousuf said in an interview with London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat, published Tuesday.

According to Yousuf, Hamas' contact with Obama's advisors was ongoing, adding that he personally had friendly relations with a few of Obama's advisers whom he had met when he lived in the US. “Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh will draft a congratulatory letter to Obama for his victory in the elections,” added Yousef.

I don't see why talks with Hamas is controversial. One can't expect that this conflict will simply resolve itself without the parties speaking.

US talks with Hamas will not only entice the Islamic party to negotiate with Israel, but will help facilitate a rapprochement with Fatah, creating stability within the Palestinian territories and indeed for Israel.

The next step is for Obama to engage Hezbollah. Removing the Bush ban on dealing with Hezbollah ministers in the Lebanese Government will encourage Hezbollah to evolve further into a political entity. Heeding Hezbollah's demands for the return of the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms will remove legitimacy for the Shia party to retain its weapons.

Active US diplomatic intervention in the region can only produce a win-win for all. Not only will it secure Israel's borders, but give opportunity to Palestinians and Lebanese to embark on a future free of war and oppression.

One can only hope that sense prevails over the destructive urges of power.

Has Obama's victory sparked a Jewish awakening?

The past 8 years of Bush's AIPAC-backed dubious policies seems to have spurred mainstream Jews into action. Moderate Jews in Western nations have become increasingly vocal against, what they see, as extremist right-wing elements of their community (i.e. AIPAC) pushing a destructive agenda that not only violates Arab human rights, but endangers Israel.

On my links, one will be able to access a number of Jewish bloggers and associations aimed at countering AIPAC's destructive influence on Middle Eastern affairs.

And it seems another has joined the party. Read the following Haaretz story:

Change has come … to Jewish America

Natasha Mozgovaya

WASHINGTON - Will the “Obama effect” that enabled Democratic candidates to ride the party's presidential candidate into Congress also contribute toward changing the map of Jewish influence on Capitol Hill? J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group and Political Action Committee (PAC) formed just last April and seen as the left's answer to the veteran American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is counting on it.

Though only about six months old, J Street already managed to raise $570,000 for 41 Congressional candidates, most of them Democrats. Six of them lost their races, and three are still awaiting the final results.

Lobbyists on the right imply that the new group is a passing trend that merely hitched a ride on the “year of the Democrats.” It has been accused of splitting the “Jewish vote,” thereby damaging the message of unity and the effectiveness of pro-Israel lobbying.

For example, Morris Amitay, who was head of AIPAC from 1974-1980 and is currently founder and treasurer of the Washington Political Action Committee, wrote in his blog: “J Street was formed to give a political voice to the more established ‘blame Israel first' groups, such as Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek V'Shalom and the somewhat less critical Israel Policy Forum. To no surprise, J Street's creation was heralded as a ‘much needed, important new development' by American Arab lobbyist and fanatical Israel critic James Zogby of the Arab American Institute.”

Amitay further noted: “A large number of J Street PAC-endorsed members of Congress have some of the poorest Israel/Middle East related voting records in the House. As a matter of policy, the Washington PAC has decided not to contribute to Members of Congress and candidates who accept endorsements by J Street PAC. We hope that truly pro-Israel political contributors will do likewise.”

AIPAC declined to comment, but there, too, J Street's success is viewed as the result of a passing trend. In any event, when Barack Obama addressed AIPAC, he saw it as a milestone in his campaign.

Talking to Israel's worst enemies

The view from J Street, of course, is different, as Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami explained to Haaretz. “J Street is premised on our belief that we speak for the majority of American Jews when it comes to Israel. Our poll conducted this summer provides the basis for this belief.”

According to the poll of 800 American Jews in early July, 76 percent support negotiating with Israel's worst enemies, 58 percent are for withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace like the arrangements with Egypt and Jordan, and 59 percent are in favor of a withdrawal from most of the West Bank. In addition, 81 percent of respondents said they “will support any agreement the Israelis make with their Arab enemies.”

“J Street will continue to grow and broaden its base of support because its views are in line with the majority of American Jews when it comes to Israel and the Middle East,” Ben-Ami said. “Our support is based on the widely shared belief among American Jews that Israel's interests in the long-term are best served by ending its conflicts with its neighbors diplomatically and quickly.”

Some people view you as a short-term phenomenon.

“Our rapid growth and success in the elections indicates that far from being a temporary phenomenon, we are filling a vacuum for a voice that represents the views of the majority of Jews on Israel and the Middle East,” Ben-Ami said.

J Street is called “dovish,” “leftist,” etc. Would you use another term?

“We are pro-Israel. We are concerned with Israel's security and survival, and we're concerned with promoting the best interests of the United States in the Middle East. In agreement with the outgoing prime minister of Israel and with so many other of Israel's leading military and security figures, we believe that Israel's security and its future as a democratic, Jewish state are at risk if we don't resolve the country's conflicts with its neighbors now and set it's permanent borders.”

Do you agree that an effort to “split” the Jewish influence might actually harm Israel? Do you feel this tension among the pro-Israel lobbying groups?

“There is no reason to avoid an open and vibrant discussion among American Jews about what is in Israel's best interests, when there is a vibrant debate in Israel on that very topic. For too long, the loudest voices from the Jewish community in Washington and in American politics have been far to the right of where the Jewish community actually is. For moderates and centrists in this country to find their political voice will actually strengthen the long-term U.S.-Israel relationship by ensuring that U.S. policies in the region have a broader base of support in the Jewish community,” Ben-Ami said.

For now, the policies promised by Obama definitely seem to fit the principles proposed by J Street. But it can be assume that the organization's future will depend significantly on the American Jewish community's satisfaction with Obama's administration.

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