Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sworn in on Tuesday as head of a cobbled-together coalition that has produced jitters in Washington, is an old hand at using Capitol Hill as a counterweight to Democratic presidents eager for peace process progress. But Netanyahu will find a changed environment when he makes his inaugural trip to Washington in May.
Groups on the Jewish and Christian right say they’re ready to run interference for him in Congress, especially if the Barack Obama administration decides to move aggressively on Palestinian statehood, or even presses on sensitive issues such as Israeli settlements.
“There’s a kindred spirit between Christian Zionists and Netanyahu,” said the Rev. James Hutchens, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian group. “He has demonstrated his willingness to reach
Jewish Theological Seminary out to us in the past and he share
s our views. He is much more resistant to giving up land for peace — he’s referred to it as land for terror. I’m looking forward to working with him in any way we can.”
But last time he was prime minister, Netanyahu had help from a Republican majority in Congress eager to thwart the Democratic president. He also had an ascendant Christian right that was just beginning to flex its political muscles. Now, Congress is firmly in the hands of the Democrats and the religious right is widely seen as politically diminished.
Still, there are factors that could boost a Netanyahu congressional strategy. These include the growing unpopularity of the Palestinian cause in Washington and the arrival on the scene of the first organized Christian Zionist advocacy group with a permanent Capitol Hill presence — the Rev. John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI).
A leading Jewish congressman expressed doubts about the impact of any effort to line up congressional opposition to Obama administration Mideast policies.
“If Netanyahu thinks he can leverage his positions using the Christian right in America to influence the president, it remains to be seen how successful he can be,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-L.I./Queens).
Ackerman predicted that both the new administration here and the new government in Israel will go great lengths to avoid the kind of conflict that might mobilize Christian and Jewish groups that oppose new peace negotiations under current conditions.
Netanyahu is “a very bright guy; I think a primary goal of his will be to develop a good relationship with President Obama,” Ackerman said. “He doesn’t need my counsel to know that. He’s said it in the past.”
Administration officials continue to insist that they are waiting until the new Netanyahu government organizes itself before starting to more seriously explore new Israeli-Palestinian initiatives. Many observers in the Jewish community expect the White House, beset with other foreign policy and domestic crises, will seek to avoid an early clash with the new Israeli government.
But groups opposed to new territorial concessions and Palestinian statehood say they are sure a big squeeze is in the works.
“What this administration seems to be looking for is pressure on Israel to make more one-sided concessions of land and other concessions to move forward toward establishment of a Palestinian state,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). “In that situation, it is very important that friends of Israel, both in Congress and in the Jewish and Christian organizations, prepare.”
Klein and others on the Jewish right say new pressure from Washington is inevitable — and that Congress “absolutely” will provide a backstop to sweeping new administration initiatives.
ZOA activists were on Capitol Hill last Thursday, and while not specifically mentioning Netanyahu, “we were laying the groundwork to make it clear that peace is impossible without a transformation of the [Palestinian] culture,” Klein said. “There is a growing understanding in Congress that this is no longer about land concessions and statehood.”
ZOA isn’t getting its marching orders from the new prime minister, Klein said. But he admitted, “We have been in contact with a number of Bibi’s confidants, and the impression they give is that this will be a very tough government — that there will be no concessions without a transformation in the [Palestinian] culture. And they said they were very appreciative of our efforts to bring that message to Congress.”
Klein said he has also “been in contact” with Christian leaders who were allies in Netanyahu’s fights with the Bill Clinton administration.
Those Christian leaders are well aware of Netanyahu’s history. During his last term as prime minister he cultivated strong relations with a number of Christian groups and used that as part of his effort to use Congress to erect obstacles to President Bill Clinton’s peace push. In 1998, Netanyahu triggered controversy by starting a Washington visit with an appearance at a rally organized by vehement administration foes, lead by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, just before going to the White House, an act widely interpreted as a diplomatic snub.
“We will certainly be speaking in opposition to pressuring Israel to give up more land, and on the need to avoid any division of Jerusalem,” said the Rev. Jim Hutchens of the Jerusalem Connection. “We will get that out to our constituency and we are certain Bibi and his government know that.”
David Brog, executive director of CUFI, struck a more cautious note.
“To a certain extent, people are jumping the gun, predicting tension between an Obama administration and the Netanyahu government,” Brog said. “It is possible they will find ways to work together.”
But he made it clear CUFI will jump into the fray if they don’t.
“If tensions were to emerge, we in the pro-Israel Christian community and the pro-Israel Jewish community may be called upon to try to blunt any excessive pressure the Israelis feel is being put on them,” he said.
Brog said Christian Zionist forces are stronger than ever.
“The situation has changed a great deal,” he said. “Ten years ago, you had pro-Israel voices from the Christian community, but they weren’t well organized, and many were not well educated on the issues. Today you have a very large, well organized and very educated Christian pro-Israel constituency.”
But the Christian and Jewish groups that believe they may be called upon to help Netanyahu face altered political realities — as does Netanyahu.
Congress is now strongly Democratic, and many of the key figures who carried the water for groups like ZOA are gone. The overwhelming Jewish vote for Obama last November means he is “in a good position to treat groups such as ZOA as people who ‘don’t vote for us, anyway,’” said Jerusalem analyst Gershom Gorenberg, author of the book “The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount.”
“By playing that card, Netanyahu would not make himself more popular in the White House,” Gorenberg said.
Democrats who sympathize with ZOA positions on some Mideast issues may be less inclined to challenge a popular Democratic president at the start of his term than they were 10 years ago, at the end of Bill Clinton’s.
Christian Zionist groups like CUFI have the same problem, but multiplied: their political base is almost entirely on the Republican side of the aisle, and the Democrats now control Congress.
Offsetting that is the fact that CUFI is now a visible presence in Washington and on Capitol Hill. Its annual Washington meeting regularly attracts top politicians and thousands of activists.
“It would be tempting for [Netanyahu] to try to repeat his previous gambit of using them as a counter-lobby to a Democratic president,” said Gorenberg. “There was a small Christian Zionist lobbying group in the ‘90s; it did not match CUFI’s public profile.”
But there are also risks for the new prime minister, he said.
“The gambit added to the tension between Netanyahu and Bill Clinton in the ‘90s,” he said. “Today, it would be even more risky.”
Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said that while an alliance of Jewish and Christian right groups opposed to new territorial concessions may be able to make a lot of noise on Capitol Hill, they are unlikely to seriously affect Obama administration policy.
“They’ll find some supporters, they will get in some irritant questions, they will produce some ‘dear colleague’ letters, but I don’t see them having a significant impact in Obama political decisions,” he said.
And while groups on the right say they expect major clashes, Kahn said there’s little indication the Obama administration is likely to stake out positions that will lead to friction with Israel and war with the Jewish and Christian right.
“Anybody who believes this administration will focus on pushing Israel to give back land is probably hallucinating,” he said.