Before flying to Israel this week, House Speaker John Boehner said the “animosity” exhibited by the Obama administration towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “reprehensible.”
The next day, the National Jewish Democratic Council issued a statement calling upon Boehner to stop politicizing the U.S.-Israeli alliance, having invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress without White House knowledge.
Now, two leading Jewish members of the House, both Democrats, Nita Lowey (D-Westchester-Rockland) and Steve Israel (D-L.I.), are calling on both Washington and Jerusalem to “cool it.”
“The level of frustration that both sides have towards the other peaked with that Wall Street Journal story,” observed Israel, referring to a story last week that quoted senior White House officials as complaining that the Jewish state has been spying on the talks between Iran and six world powers.
“I now believe that both sides recognize it would be more constructive to work things out quietly than on the pages of the Wall Street Journal or [the Israeli newspaper] Haaretz,” he told The Jewish Week.
Lowey said the spying story “was one of the reasons I have said to the White House that it is time to cool it and dial back.”
“Our relationship is strong and must remain strong,” she told The Jewish Week. “I have been in Congress 26 years and … there have been ups and downs in the relationship between the U.S. and Israel over the years. The important thing is to dial it back because the relationship is key to the U.S. and Israel and the region.”
She said she and several of her colleagues “have conveyed to the administration that they must repair the relationship,” Lowey added.
Regarding the U.S. release on Feb. 12 of once sensitive information about Israel’s nuclear weapons program — which has never been officially confirmed — Lowey said she has asked the administration about it and is still awaiting a response. Asked if the timing of the material’s release — which the U.S. had withheld for three years despite a Freedom of Information request — related to the U.S.-Israel rift, Lowey replied: “If true, it would be very disturbing.”
But there has apparently been progress regarding efforts to renew a 40-year-old agreement in which the U.S. promised to provide Israel with fuel in an emergency. It was allowed to lapse late last year, but Lowey’s office said the State Department informed it that a new arrangement has now been agreed to in principle and is soon to be signed.
The Obama administration has suggested in recent weeks that the U.S. might no longer have Israel’s back should there be an attempt to impose a peace deal with the Palestinians.
That suggestion arose after Netanyahu said during the final hours of his re-election campaign last month that he no longer supported a Palestinian state. After winning, he issued a clarification, saying that although he still believed in a two-state solution, current conditions did not permit it.
The Obama administration declined to accept the clarification and announced it was reassessing its approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace in light of Netanyahu’s original comment.
“What has now changed is that our ally in those conversations, Israel, has indicated that they are not committed to that approach anymore,” explained White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
That might be put to the test following last Friday’s announcement by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius that France would be proposing a U.N. Security Council resolution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would reportedly call for the creation of a Palestinian state based on Israel’s pre-1967 border — with land swaps — and Jerusalem as its capital.
“There is no other solution,” Fabius explained just one day after outgoing U.N. Middle East envoy Robert Serry said such a move “may be the only way to preserve the goal of a two-state solution.”
Fabius told reporters at the U.N. that he believed this approach is needed to “avoid a complete crash” in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, but he added that he first planned to discuss it with other members of the Security Council.
‘Foursquare Behind Israel’
The U.S. has not indicated whether it would support the resolution, but Lowey said she has told “senior officials” in the White House that “the U.S. must stand squarely behind Israel. The U.N. and the world have to understand that the U.S. and Israel are strong allies and there is no question in my mind that the Congress of the United States will stand foursquare behind Israel. … I have made it very, very clear.”
“This relationship — where the U.S. has Israel’s back — goes back to [the] Oslo [Accords] that said any agreement with Israel and the Palestinians has to be through negotiations,” Lowey added. “This must not change, and I regret that this kind of information [suggesting otherwise] is circulating.”
Lowey said she spoke in recent days with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the U.S.-Israel relationship “and she understands how important the relationship is.” She said she called Clinton, a possible Democratic presidential contender next year, “to give her an idea of the temperature in Congress and say it is time to cool the rhetoric. I said we need to repair the relationship and she agreed.”
That sentiment was reiterated by Clinton in a phone call she had with Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein said he called Clinton to discuss U.S.-Israeli tensions and that she told him the two-state solution must be “pursued through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians,” and that Israel must “never becomes a partisan issue.”
Clinton will be watched closely for reaction should an agreement with Iran be reached. As a former secretary of state under Obama, she would be expected to show support. But as potential candidate seeking strong Jewish backing, she may be wary of such a stand.
Lowey told The Jewish Week that it is not necessary for Obama to reassess the U.S. approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace because Netanyahu “walked back” his comments regarding a Palestinian state and “apologized” for comments the Obama administration and others understood as racist towards Arab Israelis.
“We need to move forward,” she argued. “Israel is our indispensable ally and we must stand firm.”
Both Lowey and Rep. Israel said that despite the rift between Obama and Netanyahu, military and intelligence sharing between the two nations continues uninterrupted. Lowey, the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said Israel would continue receiving $3.1 billion in aid annually and “all the shared training that goes between Israel and the U.S. military.”
Rep. Israel said that, speaking as a member of the House Defense Subcommittee on Appropriations, “the U.S. has never been more supportive of Israel and the relationship between the two countries has never been better.”
Regarding anti-missile systems, Israel said Congress would be increasing funding for Iron Dome, will increase cooperation on David Sling, and “you will see more U.S. investment in Arrow 2 and 3, and increased U.S. cooperation with Israel on tunnel detection” to spot Hamas tunnels being dug into Israel from the Gaza Strip.
“This is what is so frustrating to me,” Israel said. “The optics of the relationship between President Obama and Netanyahu has supplanted the reality of the military and intelligence cooperation going on between the two countries.”
Dinner With Dermer
Israel said he arranged for four other Democratic House leaders to join him last week for a dinner at the Washington home of Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, “for a candid exchange and to learn more about the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.”
Israel said he “routinely” arranges such dinners, but that this was the first since Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress last month.
“It was one of the more productive dinners we have had because we were able to get away from the headlines and drama and really focus on what needs to be done and to move forward both in Washington and Jerusalem,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of the time we spent on the negotiations with Iran. I have been an outspoken critic of doing a deal with Iran. I’m deeply skeptical that we can get the right deal with Iran — and the primarily issue for me is verification. It is extremely difficult to achieve the transparency necessary to trust that they are freezing their [nuclear military] program.
“The other issue for me is that in any deal we are relieving the sanctions imposed and enriching their economy. And at the end of a set period of years, Iran gets to go back to enriching uranium” and can build a nuclear bomb in a year.
The rest of their discussion focused on Israeli-U.S. tensions, according to Israel, who said Dermer provided a “very detailed history tour of every American president who had crises with Israel — everyone since [Harry] Truman had moments of crises with Israel — and the tensions were always self corrected. They always did and they always will.
“And he said if there is no deal with Iran, the current tensions will end very quickly. If there is a deal, we will have to manage the discourse because Prime Minister Netanyahu will go full throttle against the deal and President Obama will go full throttle for the deal. The most important thing, he said, is that it would be a disservice to Israel if any political party uses it in order to score partisan points.”
Netanyahu has argued that any deal with Iran must not only keep it from developing nuclear weapons, but must also reign in its proxy terrorist groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah. The Jerusalem Post quoted a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official Tuesday as saying that Iran is now placing guided warheads on its rockets and smuggling them to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The official, Col. Aviram Hasson, was quoted as saying that Iran is converting Zilzal unguided rockets into accurate, guided M-6000 projectiles by upgrading their warheads.
“It is turning unguided rockets that had an accuracy range of kilometers into weapons that are accurate to within meters,” he said, adding that as a result Hezbollah “is in a very different place compared to the Second Lebanon War in 2006.”