The diplomatic crisis over Israeli settlements is going into its second week and there is no sign that either side is backing down. It started when the Israeli government announced that it would expand settlements in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joseph Biden was visiting Israel.
The initial reason for the blow-up was the administration's anger that the Israeli government announced the construction of 1,600 new settlement units in East Jerusalem while Vice President Biden was in Israel. This was a slap in Biden's face because the United States has always opposed settlements and, like the rest of the world, does not recognize Arab East Jerusalem as part of Israel. The United States has consistently stated that the final status of East Jerusalem, like the West Bank and Gaza, must be resolved in negotiations and not resolved unilaterally by Israelis or Palestinians.
Furthermore, by announcing the new settlements while Biden was in Israel, the Netanyahu government seemed to imply that the United States condoned the move, which was the exact opposite of the truth. That perception, if allowed to stand, would only harm US interests in the Muslim world starting with US troops. According to the Israeli daily, Yedioth Achronoth, Biden himself made that point clear to Netanyahu:
"The vice president told his Israeli hosts that "since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel's actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism."
Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress are arguing that President Obama's demand that Israel stop expanding settlements activity is somehow a unique position for a president to take. This is not true. In fact, Presidents Carter and Clinton both demanded a settlement freeze, as did Bush I and II, and President Reagan.
The President [Reagan], in a televised speech demanded a "settlement freeze by Israel" that would preclude further Jewish settlement in the occupied areas. Mr. Reagan spoke of such a freeze as essential to what he described as a new United States prescription for peace in the Middle East. [New York Times, 9/2/82]
The policy has been consistent under both Democrats and Republicans: settlements are an obstacle to peace and endanger US interests.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is urging its 100,000 members to pressure Members of Congress to urge the White House to back down. This is the text of an email AIPAC sent to its members.
Members of the Obama administration have recently made statements regarding the U.S. relationship with Israel, which have heightened tensions with America's only democratic ally in the region. We strongly urge the administration to work closely and privately with our partner Israel, in a manner befitting strategic allies, to address any issues between the two governments. Yesterday, AIPAC issued a press release addressing this important issue.
Please urge members of the House and Senate to:
1. Make statements in support of America's strong relationship with Israel and the need for the U.S. to work closely and privately with the Jewish state to address any issues between the two governments.
2. Contact Secretary of State Clinton and urge the United States to immediately defuse the current tension with Israel.
AIPAC and its friends are counting on organizing Congressional resistance so that the Obama administration will back down and accept Netanyahu's plans to expand settlements. Yesterday, Netanyahu said, "The building in Jerusalem -- and in all other places -- will continue in the same way as has been customary over the last 42 years."
It is critical that Members of Congress support the president rather than thwart a courageous Presidential initiative that is right for America and Israel.
Some members of Congress can be expected to do the right thing and support the Administration, despite outside pressure.
For instance, the following House members signed on to an initiative organized by J Street and other pro-Israel, pro-peace organizations to ease the blockade of Gaza that continues to devastate the people of that unhappy place. They can also be expected to back the President in his determination to stop the expansion of settlements.
Raul Grijalva (AZ) Lois Capps (CA) Sam Farr (CA) Bob Filner (CA) Barbara Lee (CA) Loretta Sanchez (CA) Pete Stark (CA) Michael Honda (CA) John Conyers (MI) John Dingell (MI) Carolyn Kilpatrick (MI) Keith Ellison (MN) Betty McCollum (MN) James Oberstar (MN) Peter Welch (VT) Jim Moran (VA) Jim McDermott (WA) Adam Smith (WA) Lynn Woolsey (CA) Jackie Speier (CA) Diane Watson (CA) George Miller (CA) Jim Himes (CT) Andre Carson (IN) Bruce Braley (IA) Donald Payne (NJ) Rush Holt (NJ) Bill Pascrell (NJ) Yvette Clarke Maurice Hinchey (NY) Paul Tonko (NY) Nick Rahall (WV) Tammy Baldwin (WI) Gwen Moore (WI) Glenn Nye (VA) John Yarmuth (KY) Elijah Cummings (MD) Donna Edwards (MD) Michael Capuano (MA) William Delahunt (MA) Jim McGovern (MA) John Tierney (MA) John Olver (MA) Stephen Lynch (MA) David Price (NC) Mary Jo Kilroy (OH) Marcy Kaptur (OH) Earl Blumenauer (OR) Peter DeFazio (OR) Chaka Fattah (PA) Joe Sestak (PA) Brian Baird (WA) Jay Inslee (WA)
But there were some House progressives who were not on that list. Some of these are strongly pro-Obama, including on issues related to the Middle East, but will need encouragement to withstand the pressure that has already been unleashed on them to back Netanyahu this time.
This list includes:
Reps. Nancy Pelosi (CA) Jan Schakowsky (IL), Henry Waxman (CA), Jared Polis (CO), Rosa De Lauro (CT), Steve Cohen (TN), Nita Lowey (NY), Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (FL), Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX), Barney Frank (MA), Ed Markey (MA), Alcee Hastings (FL) and Howard Berman (CA), the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Others such as Anthony Weiner (NY), Brad Sherman (CA), Steve Israel (NY), Alan Grayson (FL), Eliot Engel (NY), Steny Hoyer (MD), Chris Van Hollen (MD) and Shelley Berkley (NV) not only consistently support AIPAC positions, but are extremely vocal about it.
It would be a remarkably positive, although unlikely, development if any of them chose to back their own president on the issue of settlements. (Weiner has already denounced the Obama administration for throwing a "temper tantrum.")
There is no Senate equivalent to the letter from House members so there is no reliable and current guide to where the progressives stand. Senators Chuck Schumer (NY) , Barbara Boxer (CA) and Bob Menendez (NJ) tend to be down-the-line supporters of the AIPAC line. On the other hand, John Kerry (MA), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Patrick Leahy (VT), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations are strong advocates of an "honest broker" role for America in the Middle East.
Other progressives, including Harry Reid (NV), Carl Levin (MI), Sherrod Brown(OH), Robert Byrd WV), Bernie Sanders (VT), Ben Cardin MD), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Frank Lautenberg (NJ), Russ Feingold (WI), Dick Durbin (IL), Dianne Feinstein (CA), Tom Harkin (IA)and Al Franken (MN) are more open to persuasion. Feinstein has already issued a strong statement backing the President's stand.
They are all coming under heavy pressure to back Netanyahu on the settlements issue. They need to be reminded, as Biden said in Israel (and was echoed today by General Petraeus in his Senate Armed Services testimony), that the "perception" that the United states supports settlements "would only harm US interests in the Muslim world starting with US troops." It might also be noted that the settlements do even more damage to Israel itself and its prospects for surviving as a secure and democratic state.