AIPAC, J Street wage letter wars on eve of Bibi-Obama meeting

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

Update: In the post below I neglected to mention a third pre-summit letter: the Israel Policy Forum’s (IPF) missive from four former ambassadors.

Signed by former Ambassadors Sam Lewis, Robert Pelletreau, Thomas Pickering and Edward Walker, the IPF letter called for an “immediate renewal of US-mediated Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel” and a “freeze on West Bank sett construction, the dismantling of superfluous checkpoints and illegal settlements and the cessation of demolitions of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.”

At the same time, the former ambassadors and IPF called for the “cessation of Palestinian terror attacks on Israelis and of weapons smuggling into Gaza, and an increase in the number of American-trained Palestinian security forces in the West Bank.”

Does anybody really think that advocacy group-sponsored letters from members of Congress have a big impact on shaping administration Middle East policies?

That question is relevant as AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby giant, and J Street, the upstart, pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, push lawmakers to sign competing letters on the eve of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inaugural meeting with President Barack Obama.

The AIPAC-sponsored letter, circulated by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), agrees with the President that “every effort should be made to try to realize …peace at the soonest possible time,” but goes on to emphasize that the details of any agreement must be negotiated by ” the parties themselves.”

Israel’s the one taking the risks, the letter writers say,  so “the proven best way forward is to work closely and privately together both on areas of agreement and especially on areas of disagreement.”

Translation: No U.S. pressure On Israel, no sweeping new U.S. initiatives.

Not surprisingly, the J Street letter, circulated by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) and Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.), takes a different tack, saying this:

“Unfortunately, Israelis and Palestinians have not been able to achieve peace on their own, and we therefore share your belief that American leadership is essential to achieving meaningful progress. Left to themselves, the parties have been unable to make the necessary progress toward ending the conflict, and an American helping hand is now needed to bridge those gaps.”

The letter also suggests resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is essential for American interests in the Middle East and around the world,” serving “America’s critical national goals – from addressing Iran and withdrawing from Iraq to defeating Al-Qaeda and pushing back against extremism.”

Translation: J Street believes in the kind of “linkage” AIPAC abhors.

The letter also backs “consideration” of a “regional, comprehensive approach to resolving the conflict, such as the Arab Peace Initiative.”

There you have it: J Street wants an aggressive U.S. stance toward new peace negotiations, AIPAC wants the administration to back off from sweeping plans and pressure.  J Street wants the administration to be a forceful leader willing to push both sides; AIPAC wants it to serve as a “trusted mediator and devoted friend to Israel.”

The question remains: are such letters, for years a staple of pro-Israel groups on both sides of the peace process debate, influential in affecting administration policy?

The answer: probably not – but that’s almost beside the point. The point is lining up forces for what comes next. The letter’s originators are anticipating and  preparing for what is likely to happen if Netanyahu and Obama don’t see eye to eye when the meet in the  Oval Office on Monday.

Past Israeli leaders and their U.S. allies have often sought to use Congress as a counterweight to administrations that were pressing  for policies they didn’t favor; Netanyahu, when he was in office last, was particularly aggressive in pursuing a Hill strategy, using primarily Republican members in an effort to thwart the efforts of the Clinton administration.

Results were mixed, but few doubt Bibi will try the same thing if he believes Obama, who is committed to fast progress, decides to turn the screws.

Netanyahu, many observers believe, has maintained strong relations with many members of Congress, primarily Republicans, and with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has become one of the Obama administration’s most vehement foreign policy critics.

Assuming there is a conflict – which is by no means certain (see this week’s “Friction Watch” story in The Jewish Week) —   is this strategy likely to work?

It’s hard to tell, but it’s clear that this time around Netanyahu will face a tougher environment on Capitol Hill. The Democrats have solid majorities in both Houses, and President Obama, at least for now, is riding a wave of popularity that will make it harder for hawkish pro-Israel forces to peel off some Democrats.

By most accounts, Christian right forces that were prime Netanyahu allies last time around have lost a lot of congressional clout.

Moreover, this is an administration that genuinely sees progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front as a critical element in its overall foreign policy. And in the end, administrations tend to go their own way on these matters anyway, regardless of congressional letters and nonbinding resolutions.

I don’t think either side thinks they have much of a chance of altering the emerging administration policy except, maybe, around the edges.

But both want to be prepared for the congressional skirmishes that are likely if Bibi and Barack clash next week or after the President’s round of Middle East visits later in the month, and if the administration moves ahead with a sweeping Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.