Shmuel Rosner
Haaretz (Blog)
May 19, 2008 - 5:55pm

The speaker of the House of Representatives, the most powerful woman in the United States, perhaps in the world, has no doubts. She waves her hand dismissively, and says she relies on everyone. That includes the members of her Democratic Party who are running for president, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and also the Republican Party candidate, John McCain. They will all support Israel and all the rest is a matter of election-year politics and not real U.S. policy.

Nancy Pelosi sat upright in the armchair in her office. She began the morning with an appointment already at 6:30 A.M., in order to get everything done before boarding the plane to Israel, which she is now visiting. She, too, is celebrating the 60th anniversary of a certain small country in the Middle East. A country whose establishment she describes as "one bright spot in the 20th century." The relations between the United States and Israel are important to the Americans, she adds, and to Israelis as well. Support for them is not partisan, Pelosi notes, and she refuses to be dragged into an in-depth analysis of the political battle now being waged in the U.S. over the question of which-party-is-better-for-Israel. This question seems to make her impatient, certainly on the eve of such a festive trip.

Last week she read an interesting article in The Washington Post by Richard Holbrook, one of the senior members of Bill Clinton's administration, who saw himself as almost a certain candidate for secretary of state in a Hillary Clinton administration, which apparently is not to be. Holbrook had also helped Clark Clifford, the advisor of president Harry Truman, to write his memoirs. Not coincidentally he recalled the story of the major confrontation in 1948 between Clifford and Truman's secretary of state, George Marshall. The former supported swift America's recognition of the nascent State of Israel, the latter was strongly opposed. "Truman's decision, though opposed by almost the entire foreign policy establishment, was the right one," wrote Holbrook.

Pelosi read this and recalled her father, Congressman Thomas D'Alesandro of Maryland, who was also among the early and prominent supporters of recognition of Israel. Even earlier, D'Alesandro's relationship with Truman's predecessor and the leader he esteemed, president Franklin D. Roosevelt, had soured. D'Alesandro was one of the congressmen who tried in vain to urge the president to act more vigorously against the German killing machine. "I'm not saying that Roosevelt would not have recognized Israel," Pelosi hastens to explain.

One enters her offices via an isolated corridor with policemen at every corner, on the second floor of the Cannon House Office Building. It is located on the south side, which is that of the House of Representatives, but is right on the border of the Senate area. The entrance has four heavy leather armchairs that boast a long history: They are the last vestiges of the armchairs that have graced the speaker's office since the second half of the 18th century. Last Wednesday Congress was filled with legislators voting on important agricultural laws, as well as visitors. But Pelosi's corridor was quiet.

When Congress is in session she is a slave to the voting schedule. The television that is turned on in front of her has a screen split into four parts. On one of them you could see the legislators voting in the House; on another was the image of U.S. President George W. Bush, who was speaking at the same time in Jerusalem. Pelosi is willing to compliment him: His efforts to bring peace to the Middle East are honest, she says, and the initiative that he is promoting is serious. And yes, she had already heard about the firing of the Katyusha that day on Ashkelon. In one of her previous visits she had toured the southern part of Israel and saw how close the Israeli cities are to the Gaza Strip. She understands that Israel may decide to use military force, and remarked that every country has an obligation to defend itself.

In recent weeks the person who will probably be her party's presidential candidate, Barack Obama, has been the target of a propaganda attack by their rivals. Hamas spokesmen have said they are in favor of Obama - and if they are in favor of him, any sane American will reject him, claim the Republicans.

However, as liberal as his positions may be on other issues, on the question of relations with Hamas, Obama has a view that is very similar to that of McCain and of Pelosi, too: The U.S. doesn't speak to terror organizations. Pelosi does not see "any value in going around [Palestinian] President Abbas," and says that we should talk only to him.

That is an interesting statement from someone who about a year ago was involved in a brief quarrel with the Israeli government, in the wake of her decision to visit Damascus for talks with President Bashar Assad. Pelosi was in Israel, sat with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and afterward went to Syria. She was under the impression that he understood the reason for her trip, and that she was bringing a message from him with her. Olmert came out against her publicly. Pelosi was insulted - and the vestiges of that insult have apparently not disappeared.

"The members of our delegation made a decision to go [to Syria]. We met with the Israeli government before we went. They conveyed to us the sentiment they wanted us to convey to the Syrian government. We did exactly that. What happened after that I can't explain to you," she says.

Some of her associates think that Olmert simply panicked after receiving a phone call from Washington, perhaps from the president's men who were not pleased with this sudden diplomatic move.

It's no wonder that Pelosi was angry at Olmert, since she was the one who in the end was publicly humiliated. The lead article in The Washington Post called her trip "not only counterproductive, it is foolish."

That was not the first time Olmert managed to make her angry. Things he said about the war in Iraq - which were interpreted as clear support for the view of the president, who opposes withdrawal - did not please Pelosi and her party colleagues. She quickly goes on to explain the definition she considers appropriate for the cliched term "pro-Israel."

Last week two important pollsters, Republican Neil Newhouse and Democrat Stanley Green, came to Congress and conducted a study for The Israel Project regarding the American public's support for Israel.

According to the findings, a substantial proportion of McCain voters (85 percent) believe that the U.S. must support Israel, as opposed to the results among Clinton voters (58 percent in support of Israel) and Obama voters (62 percent).

However without getting into differences of politics, the support is impressive: 76 percent of Americans believe that Israel is "a vital ally to the United States." Greenberg, who presented several of his findings in Israel recently, says that "the scale of support for Israel here is, I think, awe-inspiring." This, he adds, is a kind of gift to Israel for the 60th anniversary festivities.

But what makes an American "pro-Israeli"? Here is the definition chosen by Pelosi: "A strong supporter of Israel means that first of all [there] is an appreciation of what Israel is and what we have in common," she declares. Afterward she elaborates on this idea: Both were founded by pioneers and populated with immigrants. Israel is also a democracy, the only one in an important region.

And here is another reason enumerated by Pelosi for the special relationship between the countries - a reason whose public recognition would certainly merit a line or two in the sequel to the rather scandalous book by Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer about the "the Israel Lobby."

This lobby, the authors claim, twists U.S. foreign policy in favor of Israel. Here is how Pelosi puts it: "We have in our country, we are blessed with, a strong Jewish American population that has a strong connection to Israel, and in America attitudes at home have an impact on international relations."

In recent weeks the American press has been full of articles about the future of Israel, some of which cast doubts on it. "Is Israel Finished?" asked Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic. "Can Israel Survive Another 60 Years?" pondered columnist Christopher Hitchens in Slate Magazine. Pelosi has an answer: "Being Italian American myself we have a toast, Per cent'anni - for 100 years. But those 100 years doesn't mean exactly 100 years. It means forever."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017