GOP knocks White House over tension

Obama's congressional opponents concerned by reaction to J'lem construction.

March 16, 2010 03:52
US President Barack Obama.

Obama serious 311. (photo credit: AP)


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WASHINGTON – Congressional opponents of US President Barack Obama slammed the administration for its recent criticism of Israel Monday, as the issue threatened to become a political headache for Democratic supporters of Israel.

“In an effort to ingratiate our country with the Arab world, this administration has shown a troubling eagerness to undercut our allies and friends,” House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) said of the US condemnation of Israel’s approval of housing construction in east Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel last week.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a blistering rebuke to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Friday for sending a “deeply negative signal” about the US-Israel relationship and top White House aides called Israel’s actions “insulting” to the US as well as harmful to the peace process.

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“To say that I am deeply concerned with the irresponsible comments that the White House, vice president and the secretary of state have made against Israel is an understatement,” Cantor said in a statement put out Monday.

Similarly, House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) said Monday, “US condemnations of Israel and threats regarding our bilateral relationship undermine both our allies and the peace process, while encouraging the enemies of America and Israel alike.”

Even some Democrats have chastised the Obama administration.

Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada, describing herself as “deeply concerned” by its statements, said, “The administration’s strong implication that the enduring alliance between the US and Israel has been weakened, and that America’s ability to broker talks between Israel and Palestinian authorities has been undermined, is an irresponsible overreaction.”

And Steve Israel (D-New York) urged that “the administration, to the extent that it has disagreements with Israel on policy matters, should find way to do so in private and do what they can to defuse this situation.”

While some other Democratic members of Congress have spoken up, primarily in private calls to the administration, most have stayed mum on the issue, with several offices declining to offer a comment to The Jerusalem Post by deadline Monday.

But silence might not long be an option, as some members mull drafting a letter on the issue that members would be asked to sign.

Already Monday morning, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee put out an action alert urging senators and representatives to make statements supportive of a strong US-Israel relationship and “the need for the US to work closely and privately” with the Jewish state. The lobby also called for Congress to contact Clinton to “urge the United States to immediately defuse the current tension with Israel.”

The action alert followed on a rare press statement criticizing the administration for its stance toward Israel sent out Sunday night, describing the treatment as “a matter of serious concern” and calling on the US “to take immediate steps to defuse the tension.”

One Democratic congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the AIPAC alert and any letter too critical of the Obama administration could put Democratic members in a tough spot.

“The only thing this statement is going to do is it’s going to make people choose sides,” he said, adding that right now members are “waiting” to see how the situation evolves, as they don’t want to cross the White House but also don’t want to see Israel harmed.

Another Democratic operative agreed that members are biding their time right now, but stressed that the paucity of critical statements indicated that congressional Democrats are not breaking ranks with the White House.

“There are not meaningful defections among House and Senate Democrats from this administration’s approach on Israel,” he said.

But he warned that the administration had to spend more time reaching out to pro-Israel members and briefing them on its Middle East policy if it didn’t want to lose that support.

The Democratic operative criticized the AIPAC moves for keeping the issue alive rather than letting it die down, which he suggested would do the most to help both countries move past the recent tensions.

Still, he stressed that he saw no possibility that those tensions would evolve into a US reduction of aid, military cooperation, or any other tangible assistance to Israel.

The Democratic congressional aide agreed.

“No one thinks we’re anywhere near that yet,” he stressed. When it comes to the congressional leaders who are in charge of these issues, he said, “These people are not going to be easily swayed by the president saying there’s a diplomatic flap [so cut aid]. But I don’t think the president is going to ask from that kind of thing.”

Nonetheless, the recent brouhaha has left many Jewish groups uneasy, with a flurry of statements released yesterday continuing to voice objections to the administration’s approach.

“B’nai B’rith International is dismayed that a policy dispute is now being used by some to undermine the storied relationship between the United States and Israel,” the organization said Monday. “And it would be deeply troubling if a momentary disagreement is used in any way to derail peace efforts [or] challenge an important alliance.”

The Israel Project also chimed in, saying, “While Israel apologized for the timing of the announcement of new housing units in Jerusalem, Israel should not be put in a position of apologizing for Jews living in their holiest city and capital, Jerusalem.”

But several Jewish groups on the left backed the administration’s approach, and encouraged it to stand firm.

“The Obama administration’s reaction to the treatment of the vice president last week and to the timing and substance of the Israeli government’s announcement was both understandable and appropriate,” J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami declared. “We urge the United States to take this opportunity to suggest parameters to the parties for resuming negotiations – basing borders on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps” and other arrangements.

Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir said the US approach was too long in coming.

“The Obama administration’s reaction was not only appropriate but, frankly, should have occurred long ago. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s peace efforts leave a lot to be desired and the Obama administration had realized it long ago. The onus is on Bibi to prove that he is serious.”

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