(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
While Congress has begun echoing the hard line the Obama administration is taking with Israel over settlements, legislators are also staking out a middle ground that could help bridge the growing divide between the US and Israel.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is having little success in enlisting the congressional support for Israel in opposition to White House positions as he did during his first term from 1996-1999, as was made clear when several pro-Israel members criticized the settlements both behind closed doors and in public when he visited Capitol Hill last month.
Yet Congress is also showing that it wants to support Israel as it faces serious challenges, particularly the threat of a nuclear Iran, and representatives are providing a means for finessing the gaps between the sides, particularly in the dispute over settlements, which has become the most glaring bone of contention between Israel and the new administration in recent weeks.
On Monday, US President Barack Obama for the first time articulated that his call for a settlement freeze included "natural growth," or construction within the lines of already established West Bank settlements intended to facilitate growing families. "I've said very clearly to the Israelis, both privately and publicly, that a freeze on settlements, including natural growth, is part of those obligations," he told National Public Radio.
"Israel must seriously address the issue of settlements," agreed Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Florida) in a conversation with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. But he stressed that Israel was not being asked to act unilaterally, saying that freezing settlements must be accompanied by "significant, concrete steps in the Arab world to normalize relations with Israel."
He said that the approach, coordinated with the White House, included the notion that "we cannot expect any one party to act unilaterally."
But, in contrast to the White House, he also qualified which settlements needed to be frozen. "If the communities are outside or are east of the security fence, then it is appropriate and necessary to limit natural growth," he said.
But he said that for settlements that were inside the West Bank security barrier and were expected to stay with Israel in any peace deal it would be possible "to permit a more lenient policy in terms of the moratorium and the freeze."
And Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-New York) told the Politico Web site that he was waiting to hear from the administration "exactly how they define their terms, and is there room for defining the terms," referring to "settlements" and "natural growth," but said there was "room for compromise" with Israel.
"I think that most people could understand somebody having a child and their child living with them, as long as it's not a ruse to expand" the settlement, he was quoted as saying.
One Capitol Hill veteran described the situation as unclear.
"There's a lot of confusion because on the one hand people aren't sure what Israel means by natural growth," he said, but on the other, "a blanket no-natural growth policy borders on the bizarre."
William Daroff, the chief Washington lobbyist for the United Jewish Communities, said the haziness on the definition of natural growth noted by some members of Congress - particularly Wexler, one of Obama's closest allies in the legislature - offers possible wiggle-room for resolving the situation, as it would be politically more tenable for Netanyahu to freeze natural growth outside the barrier and still allow Obama to claim a concession.
"To the extent that all parties can agree on the size, scope and location of natural growth of settlements, that would be a way out of this burgeoning disagreement," he said.
Wexler noted, though, that the distinction he was making on natural growth was not necessarily shared by the White House, since "the administration statements are not specific enough to know with 100 percent certainty where the administration will ultimately land."
The White House did not respond to a Post request for clarification of which settlements Obama meant when he referred to the issue of natural growth.
Either way, the disagreement isn't limited to settlements, as the new predominantly right-wing Israeli government finds itself out of step with US Democratic political leaders.
Congressional sources told the Post that legislators delivered the message to drafters of two recent letters supporting Israel that it would be important that a reference to the creation of a Palestinian state be included if it were to garner widespread backing on Capitol Hill.
The final versions of the House and Senate letters, addressed to Obama, both refer to the creation of "a viable Palestinian state."
The sources pointed to the need to stress the inclusion of a reference to a Palestinian state as a sign of the disconnect between American and Israeli policy, since the two are no longer on the same page about the issue. While Obama has repeatedly declared the need for a two-state solution, as have many members of Congress, Netanyahu has refused to endorse such an entity.
This meant that the letters, pushed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as part of the group's annual lobbying effort coinciding with its spring conference, contained a position not in line with the Israeli government.
At the same time, the letters, which eventually gained signatures from more than three-quarters of the members of both chambers, including Wexler and Ackerman, urged that the US not dictate a solution to the parties, and resolve disputes with Israel privately, while putting the obligation for moving forward on the Palestinians and the Arab countries.
"The fact that over 75% of the House and Senate signed the letters shows that there still continues to be very significant support for a center-right view of the conflict and the US role in the conflict," Daroff maintained.
But he did note a different tone coming from Congress - one that has been quicker to back the new president's position even if means differing with Israel - than was heard when Netanyahu was premier in the '90s.
"The last time Netanyahu was prime minister, we had a Republican majority in Congress that was looking for issues to disagree with the Democratic president on," said Daroff, who once was deputy executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. "Netanyahu was craftily able, within the bounds of diplomacy, to enlist the Republican Congress to act as a force to help move his agenda in counterbalance to the Clinton agenda."
Now, he pointed out, Congress was controlled by the same party in the White House, and that building's occupant was fresh, popular and in the midst of outreach to the Arab world culminating in a landmark speech in Cairo on Thursday.
"The administration is still relatively new, and while there is some concern among members of Congress about the direction the administration is going on settlement policy, many of the members of Congress are willing to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt," said Daroff, who heard that message in meetings with members on Monday. Should the rhetoric continue unabated, he added, "I think we'll see many folks in Congress push back on administration policy."
And so the question for many on and off Capitol Hill is whether the recent parries are truly indicative of a brewing battle.
Middle East expert David Makovsky suggested that the White House was watching Israel's actions, such as on natural settlement growth, through a lens of skepticism, since Jerusalem indicated it wasn't on board with America's broad two-state peace push.
"Historically, when US administrations believe that Israeli governments share Washington's big-picture objectives, they tend to cut Israel slack on specific policies in sympathy with Israel's coalition constraints," he said. "When the US does not have that comfort that Jerusalem shares Washington's views of the bigger picture, the US has historically lost its implicit support for Israel's specific actions and also for assertions about domestic political constraints."
It's an approach that has reverberated in Congress, particularly in its focus on an issue - settlements - that doesn't have a lot of congressional support in the first place. That's partly because polls show even most American Jews don't back them.
Asked about a shift against settlements on Capitol Hill, one staffer asked, "Did Congress ever support them?"
Still, comments made by key legislators this year have been seen as a bellwether of a new willingness to speak out on the matter.
At a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee, over which he presides, Ackerman spoke of the sorry situation in the region by saying, "The downward pressure comes from terrorism and the march of settlements and outposts, from the firing of rockets and the perpetration of settler pogroms," as well as from "declarations that dirt and stones mean more than human life."
And following his meeting with Netanyahu, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) began terse comments to the media by noting that "I emphasized to the prime minister the importance of Israel moving forward, especially with respect to the settlements issue."
It's also a subject for which Israel doesn't have the strongest track record, as natural growth has been seen by many in the US as a loophole that has allowed for a significant expansion in settlement size and population. Recent media reports have cited Israeli census data that around a third of settlement population expansion attributed to natural growth is actually due to migration.
Still, Washington hands who deal with the Middle East stress that Congress's emphasis on the two-state solution and its attitude toward settlements, even if more critical in recent periods, isn't an indication of ill-will toward Israel.
When The New York Times reported earlier this week that the Obama administration might tone down its support for Israel at the UN if it didn't stop settlement growth, for instance, Wexler pushed back against the notion.
"I am not interested in punitive measures toward Israel. That's not my perspective nor do I think they're necessary," he said.
"The issue is not about the commitment to Israel. It remains solid," said a Washington insider. "It's the belief that these policies are eating away at the support for Israel in this country."