Diplomacy: What are the odds?

Congresswoman Shelley Berkley is an ardent Obama supporter, but vehemently opposes his policy on Israel.

Shelley Berkley 248.88 (photo credit: )
Shelley Berkley 248.88
(photo credit: )
If you were to trip over Shelley Berkley in the lobby of a five-star Jerusalem hotel, you might be excused for thinking you just bumped into your long lost Aunt Sadie. She dresses like Aunt Sadie, talks like her, has a passion for Israel like her and exudes warmth like her. Except for one major difference: Aunt Sadie was the head of her local Hadassah chapter, while Shelley Berkley, 58, is a six-term Democratic congresswoman from Las Vegas, five of those terms as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. As such, Berkley is in an interesting position. On the one hand, as the Democratic congresswoman from Las Vegas, it's safe to assume she is a firm supporter of US President Barack Obama. On the other, she is an avid supporter of Israel who thinks, and openly says, that the administration's public "dressing down" of Israel over the settlement issue has been counterproductive. She also has little faith that either Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, or the moderate Arab world, will deliver the goods that Obama expects. So how does she square this particular circle? "Look," she said, sipping an iced tea in the coffee shop of Jerusalem's David Citadel Hotel, overlooking the walls of the Old City, "the Obama administration is six months old. I wouldn't call it a learning curve, that would be insulting to the administration, and there is a lot of talent in the administration. But I think with time one of two things will happen. Either they will succeed, and nobody would be happier than I if we could come up with a two-state solution with a functioning government on the Palestinian side, which I'm not convinced Abu Mazen (Abbas) is capable of creating for his people." Or, she said, the administration will simply change strategies. "I don't see this administration being stubborn in a way, or arrogant in a way, that would prevent it from taking a different tack if necessary." And it is clear, after spending time talking with Berkley, that she doesn't think the administration's particular strategy will work. She was here this week as part of a mammoth, 29-member Democratic congressional delegation brought to the country by the American Israel Education Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. A similar Republican delegation was in the country last week. "I am quite disappointed in Abu Mazen, I always have been," said Berkley, a day before meeting him. "I think he has it within his power to bring a peaceful resolution to this issue, to create a state for the Palestinian people, to move forward to a brighter future for Palestinian children. "And yet, year after year we seem to be stuck in the same situation, and I think he has done very little over the years in preparing his own people for peace," she said, pointing to this week's Fatah conference in Bethlehem as an example. "Are we still hurling accusations against the Israelis that they are somehow responsible for the death of Yasser Arafat?" she asked. "Isn't that somewhat counterproductive to moving forward toward peace?" Berkley said she raised this issue in a meeting her delegation had with US Gen. Keith Dayton, who advised the group not to pay too much attention to what was being said at Fatah's "political convention." Berkley told Dayton she remembered the heady days of the Oslo Accords, when Arafat would say what the US and Europeans wanted to hear in English, but then repeated "the usual anti-Israel, anti-Semitic rants to his own people." Back then, she said, "administration and State Department officials said the exact same thing: Don't pay any attention to what Arafat is saying; we know what he has to say in order to survive; we know what he really feels. But we didn't, we really miscalculated that. I think words are very powerful; they have meaning." Asked what Dayton's reply was, she let out a belly laugh and replied, "He said that was a good question." IN JUNE, before Obama's Cairo speech, Berkley was one of a few US legislators who publicly broke with the president's Mideast strategy and called into question his placing pressure primarily on Israel. "My concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute," she said at the time. And she still believes it, even though the tone coming out of the Obama administration - at least in its public statements - has been less strident of late. "I don't think it was particularly productive to publicly dress down our most reliable ally," she said. "I think it puts both countries, who are in fact very close friends, strategic partners and allies, in a bit of a bind. And I think the Palestinians and the Arabs are using this to create a division that might not necessarily be there: using Obama's words against the Israelis and the US, and making it more difficult in some ways to move forward." While saying the overall state of US-Israel relations "is a very strong one based on history, shared values and security reliance on each other," Berkley admitted the relationship was currently in a valley. "Like any relationship, there are good times,and not so good times. And I think this hasn't been the best time right now," she said. As to whether Obama was going to lose his Jewish base of support if he pushed Israel too hard, Berkley said it was much too early to tell. "I think that if he pushes too hard on Israel, he is going to find that the Arabs he is trying to court are not going to come around to his way of thinking," she said. With that, Berkley added there was growing concern, coupled with some hope, in the American Jewish community. "I think people appreciate that President Obama is just six months into his administration, and we have differences," she said. "But if this was 31⁄2 years into his administration, I think there would be cause for concern." Berkley has heard anxiety about Obama's Israel policies voiced by colleagues in the House, as well as by Jews around the country. "Given the fact that President Obama did get as much Jewish support as he did, ultimately he is going to start hearing from those Jews who supported him - that they are a little bit worried about their [the administration's] positions. "I believe Israel has given up a great deal over the years for peace," Berkley said. "It gave up the Sinai to have peace with Egypt. It withdrew from Lebanon and got Hizbullah. It unilaterally left Gaza. So to suggest that natural growth in the settlements is the cause for Palestinian inaction is, I think, absurd. There is nothing in history to demonstrate that if all the settlements went away tomorrow, the Arabs would then be any more willing to recognize Israel's right to exist." She went even one step further and, amid all the reports of no support at all in Congress for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the settlement issue, actually admitted that she supported natural growth there, saying it was "appropriate" to ensure normal life in settlements near the Green Line that would remain part of Israel in any agreement. And, bear in mind, Berkley is a Democrat, an Obama supporter, and from Nevada, not traditionally a state that the Walt and Mearsheimer school of thought would classify as states with huge Jewish populations and politicians deep in Israel's pocket. But still, the Walt and Mearsheimer Israel-lobby bashers probably look at Berkley and view her as a poster child for their argument that the "lobby" has a stranglehold on American foreign policy. Berkley released another belly laugh at the notion, and shrugged it off, making no apologies and making it clear she didn't need AIPAC to convince her of the importance of the Israeli-US relationship. "I'm a second generation American, and grew up in a Jewish household," said Berkley, who was born in New York but moved to Las Vegas with her family when she was in junior high school. "My mother was an ardent Zionist, and I didn't need an organization telling me about the importance of Israel's survival. While I know that the Jewish people are a people of the Diaspora, I believe that our survival and our strength very much comes from the survival and strength of Israel. This is personal to me." So personal, in fact, that she bristled at the thought that the US, as State Department spokesman Robert Wood intimated last month, might at some point use economic sanctions as leverage against the Netanyahu government. Berkley said that soon after Wood said it was "premature" to talk about placing financial sanctions on Israel to get it to stop building beyond the Green Line, she called House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman to complain. Berman, she said, assured her that he would speak to the administration about the matter. It is not premature to discuss sanctions, she said, "it is beyond the pale for the US to even suggest economic sanctions against Israel." In fact, she added, "I can't imagine a scenario where the administration would even suggest this."