How Bad Is The Rift?
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How Bad Is The Rift?

With Israel now a wedge issue, observers split on possible fallout as Netanyahu’s Congress speech approaches.

The top professional of a major Jewish organization has expressed confidence that the rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have no impact on U.S.-Israel relations.

“Our common values will keep us working together,” said Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International. “I don’t see this — even in the near term — as a sustained partisan issue because nothing has really changed. Iran is an issue that has ramifications for Israel, the U.S. and Europeans and it is a legitimate topic for discussion.”
But the top professional of another Jewish organization expressed “fear” that the rift could lead to long-term damage in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“The fact that the two [leaders] are not working together is deeply troubling to most American Jews,” said David Halperin, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, a Jewish group that promotes a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Should Netanyahu be re-elected, I fear this could be the tip of the iceberg to turning Israel into a partisan issue.”

He said the timing of this split “could not be worse because we are now seeing the potential collapse of the Palestinian Authority and possible European sanctions [against Israel].”
Other observers were similarly split on possible fallout from the rift, which stems from Netanyahu’s belief that the U.S. is negotiating a treaty with Iran that would enable it to develop nuclear weapons within a matter of months. Netanyahu has accepted a Republican invitation to address a joint session of Congress Tuesday to explain his concerns. A number of Democrats complained that without the blessing of the Obama administration, the speech has become a partisan issue. Several have said they would not attend.

Former Rep. Mel Levine of California, who had been a senior Democratic member of the House Middle East subcommittee, said he believes the damage to U.S.-Israel relations “is potentially quite serious. And I am perplexed because it makes no sense. The only logic for Netanyahu to speak to Congress and refuse to speak with pro-Israel Democrats is because of domestic politics. It is a short-term gain for Netanyahu but it comes at the expense of Democrats in Congress. …

“It puts Americans — including pro-Israel Americans — in the position of having to make a choice between the Israeli prime minister and the American president — a choice they never had to make before. And I’m very worried about that. … He would get his message across more forcefully and credibly to members of Congress if he met privately with them. This looks like a campaign stunt; he is playing into partisan rivalries.”

On the other hand, Tom Dine, former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel group that seeks to build relationship with all members of Congress, said he is convinced that the rift is “very personal.”

“It is about Netanyahu and not about Israel or relationships,” he said.

Dine said the White House and State Department believe Netanyahu’s address to Congress “will only lessen the chances of a deal with Iran, and they feel American diplomacy is at stake. It is a hard negotiation to begin with, and Netanyahu’s plan to speak here exacerbates the problem.”

But Arye Mekel, a former Israeli consul general in New York, said he believes Netanyahu must address Congress because of the agreement the U.S. is working out with Iran “is terrible and dangerous” and would allow Iran to become an existential threat to Israel.

All of the advance attention the speech is getting is good, Mekel argued, because “the drama will raise the issue of Iran to something the general public is interested in, rather than just the bureaucrats in Washington.”

But once Netanyahu delivers his remarks, the strain between the U.S. and Israel “will blow over much faster than most people think because there are many other issues they have to deal with, such as ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah. The world does not stop and stare just because there is a certain misunderstanding between Israel and the U.S.”

He added that should Netanyahu not become the next prime minister following the March 17 Israel election, “the issue will be over immediately. … And if he is elected, it would go away after two or three weeks.”

Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., was less sanguine about potential damage to U.S.-Israel relations.

“Fallout is happening now,” he said. “The [U.S.] national security adviser said there is damage to Israel’s standing, and Israel is in danger of losing bipartisan support,” he said. “It goes beyond Netanyahu and Obama. … Much depends upon the kind of government and policy Israel will have after the election. I’m not saying the damage is irreparable, but the damage at this point is palpable.”

Asked about newspaper ads by groups such as J Street calling upon Netanyahu not to deliver Tuesday’s speech, Rabinovich said he is not surprised by the position of a left-wing group. But he said he is most concerned about the “centrists, the mainstream Jewish community that is either critical or silent.”

“That tells me what the Jewish community feels, and it is important for Israel not to estrange the American Jewish community – or the general community,” he said. “Even Americans critical of Obama don’t want to see a foreign leader taking on the president – they respect the office.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he is confident in the U.S.-Israel relationship because “the fundamentals of the relationship remain the same.”

“I hope everyone will work now to stop the tensions and the sometimes unfortunate — or worse — comments that have been made,” he said. “What is important is to focus on the immediate issue of Iran, and ensuring that the U.S.-Israel relationship is intact. We have to focus on the fundamental values and visions that are shared by the two countries.”

“There have often been differences between our two countries, but our common interests have always prevailed and they will again,” Hoenlein added. “If the enemies of both countries perceive there is a split, it can only work to our detriment.”

Although not diminishing the seriousness of the rift, Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Presidents’ Conference, said he does not believe there will be any “long lasting” damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“Security and intelligence relationships between the two countries are at the greatest level – which is something we hear from both Israelis and Americans,” he said. “I think the American people will continue their overwhelming support for Israel.”

On the other hand, Reich said, “What is occurring is very serious, and the prime minister should not have accepted the invitation. But he should have accepted the invitation from Democratic senate leaders to meet with them. I can’t understand what advice he is getting for him to turn them down.”

He said he is also concerned that a number of black members of Congress have chosen to boycott the address, believing “it to be an affront to the president.”

Added Reich: “The American people don’t like to see their president bashed. On the other hand, the American people have short memories.”

The rift could add fuel to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement on college campuses, Reich said. But Shahar Azani, northeast executive director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel group in the U.S. that focuses on Israel education and information on college campuses, said in an email that the attempt to tarnish Israel on campuses usually has “little to do with actual reality on the ground or the political situation between Israel and the U.S.”

He also cited recent polls indicating strong American support for Israel following last summer’s war with Hamas in Gaza and over the disagreement with the Obama administration regarding Iran.

“It is also important to remember — especially in these days,” Azani added, “that the disagreements are not over the goal of preventing a nuclear Iran — everyone’s position is clear on that: a nuclear Iran is bad for the region, bad for the United States and bad for Israel.”

stewart@jewishweek.org

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