In the growing national debate on US-Israel relations, California's two US senators have very different things to say. On one side, Senator Barbara Boxer has firmly aligned herself with the pro-Israel lobby. On the other side, Senator Dianne Feinstein has adopted a more independent position in support of Middle East peace.
Just last month, Senator Boxer was the lead Democratic signatory on a Senate letter criticizing Palestinian leaders. The letter was organized by AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and it was addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In that letter, Senator Boxer joined with 75 other senators to criticize Palestinian leaders for "refusing to enter into direct negotiations with Israel." The letter called for "unconditional peace negotiations."
While "unconditional peace negotiations" might sound like a good thing, the details are something else entirely. Palestinian leaders have been opposed to entering into formal negotiations with Israel so long as Israel continues to build settlements on what is left of Palestinian land. Under those circumstances, negotiations essentially become a farce through which Israel buys extra time to keep expanding its territory. Supporting "unconditional" negotiations actually means holding talks without the precondition that Israel stop gobbling up Palestinian land.
Demonstrating her independence from AIPAC, Senator Dianne Feinstein did not add her name to this letter. In an email to constituents, she expressed "grave concerns about the expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank." She considered the issue "a major stumbling block to a peace agreement."
Fortunately, the Obama Administration is also ignoring Senator Boxer's letter. In pressuring the Israeli government to stop building East Jerusalem settlements, the White House has made it possible for Palestinians to agree to indirect talks with Israel. Israel has a great deal further to go, but it is a first step in the right direction.
It may be surprising for liberal Democrats to note that on the question of Israel-Palestine relations, Senator Boxer has adopted a hawkish position that essentially defends the continued expansion of Israel's territory. In contrast, Senator Feinstein has become the risk-taker, boldly supporting peace negotiations that by implication would even have to address Hamas.
One year ago, Senator Feinstein joined 31 other senators to praise Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for visiting Israel and the West Bank. In that letter, Senator Feinstein also referred to the "launching of rockets from Gaza into Israel, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and the ongoing challenge of formalizing an Israel-Hamas truce." It is difficult to imagine Senator Boxer or AIPAC using that last phrase -- "an Israel-Hamas truce."
But it is precisely this kind of independent thinking that Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians now need. Perhaps it isn't much of a surprise that Senator Feinstein declined to sign the Boxer/AIPAC letter. In response, AIPAC went so far as to set up a webpage where pro-Israel activists could email Senator Feinstein to "express disappointment."
Thankfully, it is Senator Feinstein's position that is winning the day. The weekend news was that indirect talks between Palestinians and Israelis have begun. Good faith negotiations require an end to settlement construction, and the Obama Administration appears to be reaping the early rewards for advocating this position.
Sanjeev Bery is the Executive Director of Freedom Forward.