Marin Cogan, Jake Sherman
August 19, 2011 - 12:00am

Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill will spend much of the fall warring over budget deficits and the national debt, but a mass excursion by lawmakers to Israel this month offers a glimpse into a simmering foreign policy fight that could unify the two parties and cause headaches for the White House.

A record number of lawmakers — 81 total — from both parties are making the rounds in Israel in advance of a hotly contested vote for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations next month. The trips, led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), are sponsored by an offshoot of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has a great interest in warning Congress of the seriousness of the U.N. vote.

Members of both parties are already threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian territories in the event the vote takes place this September, and some lawmakers are ready to cut off funding even after the United States vetoes it at the U.N. Security Council.

Whether or not Congress decides to cut off funding could have serious implications for the country’s long-term Middle East strategy and President Barack Obama’s efforts to help negotiate a lasting bilateral peace agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The terrorist attacks in southern Israel on Thursday, along with continued unrest elsewhere in the region, further spotlight the delicate timing of the U.N. vote.

It also puts a unique spotlight on Hoyer and Cantor — party leaders on opposite sides of most issues under the Capitol dome — who are unified on a delicate foreign policy issue. Hoyer and Cantor earlier this year co-sponsored a House-passed resolution warning the Palestinians that aid could be restricted in the event that leaders go forward with a recognition at the U.N. meeting in September.

Hoyer said he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on his trip with Democrats last week and made it clear they were risking the restriction of aid from Congress.

“There’s no doubt that they know that will be a risk,” Hoyer said.

The U.N. vote is expected to be “central to some of the discussions that we’ll have certainly with the prime minister of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas,” Cantor said this week.

Hoyer and Cantor’s unified front presents the Obama administration and Middle East policy watchers with an unequivocal sense of where Congress stands. In their unity, Cantor also can try to position himself — and Congress — as more pro-Israel than the president.

Cantor said his relationship with Hoyer is “all the more important now, especially given mixed signals coming from the White House and the unwillingness from what I’ve seen in this president to stand up and say unequivocally that we are first and foremost standing up for our ally Israel because it’s Israel’s security that is in the best interest of the United States.”

In the upcoming U.N. vote, Republicans are seeking to highlight what they consider shortcomings in Obama’s foreign policy with Israel in an election year. The administration’s Middle East policy is already becoming fodder on the campaign trail for Republicans.

“I don’t think there’s any question that there are a lot of questions unanswered as to where this president stands on Israel,” Cantor told POLITICO. “His preoccupation with construction in Jerusalem, his seemingly tepid stance taken vis-à-vis Iran is not something that has been welcomed in the pro-Israel community in this country, and I think most Americans do believe that Israel’s security goes hand in hand with the United States’s security, and that’s where I think the leadership on the part of the president has been lacking.”

Hoyer said: “I agree with Mr. Cantor that our relationship in dealing with Israel is important in that it reflects the bipartisan nature of the very, very unshakable support that Congress has demonstrated” toward Israel as one of the United States’s strongest strategic allies.

But Hoyer quickly added that “with respect to Obama, I think the president is very supportive of Israel, I think he’s trying to seek a way forward to accomplish a peace agreement and I think there’s no doubt that the president is absolutely committed to Israel’s security and sovereignty and safety.”

Cantor’s remarks play to some concerns among Democrats on and off the Hill about White House messaging on Israel. Even though the president already promised the United States would veto the Palestinian statehood vote at the United Nations, they fear Republicans will look for any opportunity to position themselves as more staunchly pro-Israel.

And they point to the special election race to replace former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), where Democratic former Mayor Ed Koch is arguing that supporters of Israel should vote for the Republican in Queens to rebuke Obama’s earlier statement that the pre-1967 borders be the basis for negotiating a peace agreement between the two sides, as evidence Democrats need to work to align their messaging better heading into September.

“Obviously there’s a U.N. vote, but there are no mixed signals coming out of the [White House] when it comes to Israel’s security,” said National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor.

“There’s a lot of anger about that both in the Obama administration and campaign and DNC,” said one source familiar with the Democrats’ thinking on Israel policy.

“[Expect] a concerted effort this fall to snap Democrats back in line and say ‘What the hell are you doing? You may think it’s helpful in the short term but if this meme gets out that Obama is bad on Israel, that will lead to Democrats being bad on Israel, and that doesn’t help anyone,’” said the source, who said to expect the push to begin when Congress returns to Washington early next month.

But the climate on Capitol Hill will be anything but conciliatory — especially if the vote happens. In an interview, Cantor said there is “a lot of objection to allowing taxpayer dollars to go to a Palestinian Authority that is in partnership with Hamas.”

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who will head to Israel this weekend, said Obama’s policy on the Middle East is not “very clear and well thought through. And right now, things are kind of running amok.”

West, a tea party favorite who represents a swing district in South Florida with a hefty Jewish population, said Obama’s Israel stance has the potential to be a “problem” for him politically.

That’s one of the messages being carried to the region, as top lawmakers visit with top Israeli and Palestinian officials this month. In addition to meeting with Abbas and Fayyad, lawmakers met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposition leader Tzipi Livni, military and diplomatic personnel and traveled to historic sites around the country. On Thursday, lawmakers in the country were learning of a terrorist attack that killed six in a southern city close to the Egyptian border. And adding to the tension in the region, the Obama administration was readying calls for Syrian Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Along with Cantor and Hoyer, other lawmakers on trips include House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.); Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee; Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), a member of the GOP’s leadership team; and Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls foreign aid. Members are going in three groups — a Democratic group recently returned and two Republican groups are there this month.

Cantor, the highest-ranking Jewish member of Congress, will spend a week with both GOP groups.

It’s the first trip to Israel for many of the 47 attendees from the freshman class. Hoyer, who said he has taken more than 100 members in 10 years, said members “all come back with a better sense of the geography, the proximity of danger and the importance of Israel and the character of Jewish people, [as well as] a better understanding of the Palestinian issue.”

Congress isn’t alone in making the trip during the recess. Radio host Glenn Beck plans to hold a “Restoring Courage” rally, akin to his demonstration on the National Mall last year, to encourage leaders from all over the world to rally behind Israel in the lead-up to the U.N. vote. Beck’s organizers were still trying to confirm details of visits from lawmakers and they declined to comment on the lineup.


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