- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Obama administration’s spat with Israel over Jewish settlement activity in occupied East Jerusalem is unlikely to hurt Democrats politically in any major way, primarily because of voters’ preoccupation with domestic issues, such as health care and the economy, analysts say.

The administration’s actions, they say, also indicate that it is not very worried about domestic political consequences. Not only has it refused to back off its demands, but this week it again clashed publicly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about what is in Israel’s interests.

“They are not letting Netanyahu off the hook,” said Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They clearly see some utility in airing their disagreements with him in public.”

According to polls, President Obama is seen by many Americans as being tougher on Israel than his predecessors, but that is unlikely to become a major issue in this year’s midterm elections, said John R. Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration.

Israel approves new east Jerusalem building

“Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming emphasis on domestic issues, and it’s difficult to break through the economic news — and when you add health care, this is one more problem many people don’t want to have,” Mr. Bolton said.

In fact, Ms. Dunne said, Mr. Obama may be more emboldened to maintain pressure on Israel now that he has had a domestic success in passing health care reform. The failure to do that last fall was one of the reasons the president “backed down from a confrontation” with Mr. Netanyahu at the time, she said.

At the same time, Mr. Obama is unlikely to escalate his dispute with the Israeli leader and “distract public attention from this week’s story line of success on social domestic legislation,” said Daniel Levy, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.

Mr. Levy, who was a special adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak — the current defense minister — in the late 1990s, said that a “vocal mobilized minority” of Jewish Americans most likely will try to make the dispute an election issue, but they will not be successful.

“The vast majority of American Jewish voters in November won’t be basing their vote on this spat,” he said. “A small minority for Jewish Democrats will raise it, and part of the Republican base will use it as one of many mobilizing vehicles, but those voters will be mobilized anyway — though, on margins, it could raise money for certain candidates.”

Members of Congress from both parties have urged the administration to end the dispute, which began with Israel’s announcement of 1,600 new housing units just as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived in the Jewish state two weeks ago. Lawmakers have signaled that they care more than the administration about domestic perceptions.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who was one of several members to meet with Mr. Netanyahu on Tuesday, said, “We in Congress stand by Israel. In Congress, we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said there “can be no space between our governments.”

“While the Jerusalem housing announcement was ill-timed, there was no justification for the administration’s public condemnation of Israel over matters related to the Jewish state’s undivided capital,” she said.

Mr. Netanyahu also met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Biden on Monday, and with Mr. Obama on Tuesday.

The White House agreed that a public quarrel harms the peace process and insisted that its support for Israel is “rock solid,” but it has not retreated from its demands on settlements. It said those demands are motivated by its commitment to Israel’s security, which depends on a “comprehensive peace” with the Palestinians and other Arabs.

Although Mr. Netanyahu’s visit to Washington this week offered an opportunity to make up and show unity with the Obama administration, it actually exposed fundamental differences between the two governments’ visions and policies.

“New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines that mutual trust” between Israelis and Palestinians and “endangers” future negotiations, Mrs. Clinton said Monday.

“It undermines America’s unique ability to play a role — an essential role — in the peace process,” she said at the annual conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobbying group. “Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don’t agree, to say so, and say so unequivocally.”

Just hours later, Mr. Netanyahu was as defiant as ever, saying, “Jerusalem is not a settlement — it is our capital.” Israel should not be expected to freeze construction in areas in East Jerusalem occupied in 1967, because they are “an integral and inextricable part” of the city, he said.

“Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building in them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution,” he said.

However, Mrs. Clinton said that is a final-status issue “to be settled at the negotiating table.”

Ms. Dunne said the administration’s rhetoric is an indication that Mr. Obama is “trying to define” Washington’s relationship with Israel by making it clear that “being a good friend means telling you what you might not want to hear.”

The Gallup Poll recently said 80 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of Israel. In a survey by the Arab American Institute this week, those numbers were 92 percent and 42 percent, respectively.

More than 2,400 Americans were polled, and only 34 percent said they consider “Israel’s settlement construction in the occupied territories” legitimate, while 40 percent said it should stop.

“Our findings offer unique insights into a nuanced position that incorporates support for Israel, but not at the expense of U.S. strategic interests,” said the institute’s president, James Zogby.

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