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Are Congressional Supporters of Israel “Complicating” U.S. Middle East Policy?

For the American foreign policy establishment there is no more frustrating aspect of American politics than the steadfast support for Israel in the United States Congress. As the New York Times pointed out in a front page article, this “significantly complicated the administration’s diplomatic efforts to avert a confrontation at the United Nations this week over the Palestinian bid for full membership as a state, limiting President Obama’s ability to exert pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to make concessions that could restart negotiations with the Palestinians.”

The Times article is focused on the fact the congressional Republican caucus is ardently pro-Israel, and the GOP hopes to capitalize on disaffection from Obama to win votes as the results in the special election in the heavily Jewish New York 9th congressional district showed. This ignores the fact the affection for Israel on both sides of the congressional aisle is far from a recent development. It’s true Obama’s often less-than-friendly attitude toward Israel has created an opening for the Republicans. But dismissing the GOP Congress’ stand on Israel as mere politics misses the point. Rather than a superficial partisan approach to foreign policy, the congressional effort to act as a brake on Obama’s tilting of the diplomatic playing field toward the Palestinians reflects the deeply held convictions of most Americans.

Netanyahu’s popularity in Congress is based on the fact both Republicans and Democrats see Israel as an ally, not just a political talking point. The Times finds it ironic many members of Congress trust the Israeli government’s opinion about whether they should continue aid to the Palestinian Authority more than that of the administration. But more than anything else, that is a measure of Obama’s generally poor record on the Middle East. Israel has signaled it favors U.S. support for the PA, but congressional efforts to put the PA and the UN on notice the flow of American taxpayer cash to these bodies cannot continue if our values and interests are flouted will not be stopped by a few words from Netanyahu.

Measures like House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s proposed bill mandating the cutoff of U.S. money to the PA as well as to the United Nations in the event of a successful vote for unilateral declaration of independence are portrayed as hurting the cause of peace. But it could help Obama bring the Palestinians to their senses if he understood it provides his only leverage over them and the world body.  The goal is not to create chaos on the West Bank by bankrupting the PA but to make Abbas and his cronies understand they can’t flout America’s interests while taking its money.

This morning at the UN, the president rightly articulated Israel’s case for security and for the need for a resolution of the conflict through negotiations. But if Abbas is not willing to negotiate or to sign a deal that will accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, the administration’s policy of seeking to sweeten the pot for the Palestinians to come back to the table will be of no avail. In this context, any attempt to draw a moral equivalence between Israel’s position and that of the Palestinians, as Obama did, will not bring the region closer to peace.

Congressional Republicans are often portrayed, as they are in this Times piece, as unthinking partisans of Israel. But in this case, their belief in bringing pressure to bear on the Palestinians seems far more realistic than the devotion of the administration to a policy of pressuring Israel in a futile attempt to bribe Abbas.


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