Douglas Bloomfield
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
September 22, 2011 - 12:00am

It is easy to get the impression the GOP-led House of Representatives is trying to out-Likud the Likud. The reaction on Capitol Hill to Palestinian plans to seek UN membership may be more strident than that of the Israeli government.

But it’s hard to tell because the Israelis are delivering a very mixed message.

Congressional staffers report Israeli diplomats have been privately telling them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants all US aid cut off unless the Palestinians drop their UN bid. That contradicts public messages from the Israeli leadership suggesting a “tempered” response, said a House source, and almost plaintive public calls to resume peace talks.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry seemed to be taking opposing positions on its website this week. On one page was a speech by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon warning the Palestine Donors Conference in New York that the Palestinian UN initiative could “severely and irreparably” compromise “future assistance and cooperation” with the PA, while on another was a report submitted to the same meeting saying, “Israel calls for ongoing international support for the PA budget and development projects.”

Back on Capitol Hill, Democrats are afraid of being out-Israeled by Republicans, and many are trying to match the stridency of the majority party. Several Republican congressmen, led by Tea Partier Joe Walsh (RIllinois), introduced a resolution “supporting Israel’s right to annex Judea and Samaria” if the PA unilaterally declares statehood – something only Israeli ultra-nationalists are pushing. Ohio Republican Steve Chabot wants to withhold US dues to the United Nations. Others are proposing closing the PLO Washington office.

In June both the House and Senate passed a non-binding resolution with overwhelming bipartisan majorities threatening to restrict US aid if the Palestinians persisted in their UN strategy. 58 Democrats sent their own letter to European leaders asking them to pressure the Palestinians to change their minds.

Few on Capitol Hill believe Mahmoud Abbas when he says his UN strategy is designed to bring Israel back to the negotiating table. He could have done that any time in the year since he walked away from the peace table. All he has to do is test whether Netanyahu is bluffing when he says he is ready for unconditional talks. It’s hard to take Abbas seriously when he bypasses so many opportunities. He has an American president, once one of his strongest supporters, pleading with him to return to the peace table. He seems not to care that he has done much damage to that critical relationship.

THERE’S MORE involved than foreign policy. Here in Washington the debate is really less about Middle East peace and more about domestic politics.

Republicans are determined to make support for Israel a political wedge issue in the 2012 campaigns, and they took great encouragement from the race in New York’s 9th Congressional district last week when a Roman Catholic Republican beat an Orthodox Jewish Democrat in arguably the most Orthodox Jewish district in the country. It is inaccurate to call the election a referendum on President Obama’s handling of the Israel issue, but that’s how many choose to interpret it.

Partisan Republicans allied with the Israeli far right are hammering home their theme that they are Israel’s best friends and Democrats, especially Obama, are unreliable at best.

That has many Democrats worried, especially the fundraisers who fear longtime contributors will stay on the sidelines or, worse, give to Republicans, whose battle cry is “We love Israel more.” It’s about money, not votes.

The current crop of GOP presidential contenders are running so far to the right that there is little hope they can attract significant numbers of Jewish voters. The target audience for the “fear and smear” anti-Obama campaign is pro-Israel activists with deep pockets. The main victim will be the historic bipartisan consensus if support of Israel is allowed to become a political wedge issue. The one suffering most will be Israel as the focus shifts from making friends in both parties to pursing purely partisan aims.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, held hearings last week to showcase her threat to cut off all aid to the PA. She was surprised when a star witness, Elliot Abrams, George W. Bush’s top White House Middle East advisor, warned a cutoff could lead to the collapse of the PA and would not be in the interest of the United States or Israel but “might actually benefit Hamas and other terrorist groups.”

Hill staffers report Israeli diplomats have told them that the word from Netanyahu is that unless the Palestinians change course, all US aid should be halted. “Bibi knows how to use Congress, and he wants to use us to scare them,” said one aide who’d met with senior embassy representatives.

One ploy being considered by Ros- Lehtinen, according to a committee source, is to require any release of aid to the PA have a signed presidential national security waiver. That will let the Republicans say they cut off the aid and give them one more target for attacks when Obama invokes the waiver.

“What worries people up here is that if we withhold some or all of the aid, when the time comes to release funds, will Netanyahu provide the political cover needed or just leave us twisting in the wind,” he said.

While Netanyahu heads for the podium at the UN with his conciliatory message of readiness for peace, his cheering section on Capitol Hill will be hammering out a different tune.


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