Will Congress rise to Netanyahu’s defense on settlements?

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

Will President Barack Obama face big trouble in Congress if he continues putting the squeeze on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the issue of Jewish settlements – and if Bibi continues to resist?

It depends on how you define trouble. And a lot depends on whether Obama can continue combining strong assurances of support for the Jewish state and soothing words about the U.S.-Israel relationship with intensifying pressure for a freeze on all new settlement construction, including construction nominally aimed at “natural growth,” a combination that administration officials believe will be effective with the big Jewish majority that voted for this president last November (see my Jewish Week story on the subject here).

Congressional Republicans, always eager to score some hits on the Democratic administration, won’t have any problem rising to Netanyahu’s defense – all the while knowing that there’s not much they can do about his emerging policy except pound away with a view to the next election and the eternal hope of luring more Jewish voters to their side of the partisan divide.

A lot of Democrats wish the issue would just go away. Many –  especially those from districts with substantial numbers of Jewish voters – don’t want to cross the big pro-Israel groups that are expected to try to generate opposition to the tightening US squeeze on Netanyahu,  but they also don’t want to cross a very popular president from their own party.

Some Jewish Democrats will mouth bland generalities about Israel’s rights as a sovereign nation but avoid any real head-butting with the President.

JTA reported this week that a few Jewish members are already speaking out against the settlements squeeze, including Rep. Shelly Berkley (D-Nev.), the most reliable supporter of ZOA positions in Congress, and New York’s Rep. Anthony Weiner, the Brooklyn Democrat running for mayor of New York.

But what really matters are the positions and statements of Jewish members in the middle – the Howard Bermans, Gary Ackermans, Henry Waxmans and so on.  Most of them are going to stay on the sidelines as long as the administration doesn’t signal overt hostility to Israel – the way the first Bush administration did during the 1991 loan guarantee fight.

AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobby, has been hard at work generating “no pressure” sentiment on the Hill, which isn’t very hard to do – as long as members don’t have to actually go to battle with the President. But traditionally, AIPAC has been uncomfortable with the issue of settlements; this isn’t a fight they particularly want.

The lobby understands better than most how difficult it is to change the foreign policy of a determined administration through congressional statements, letters  and resolutions, especially when the president enjoys popular support and has strong congressional majorities.

This could be an important moment for J Street, the year-old pro-peace process lobby and political action committee. One of its goals – providing political “cover” for pro-Israel lawmakers who may still disagree with Israeli policy – may be more important than ever for some Jewish members.  This week the group was hard at work, telling lawmakers that Obama is doing the right thing on settlements, that his version of tough love will ultimately help the Jewish state and that a strong majority of American Jews are likely to along with him.

But there’s risk, too;  if Jewish public sentiment changes and the Obama administration is seen as hostile, not just tough, J Street could find itself hanging onto a very precarious limb.

But for now there’s no sign of that happening, especially given Obama’s care in expressing his continuing support for the state of Israel and the strong U.S.-Israel relationship even as he ratchets up the pressure on settlements.

As several experts said in my Jewish Week story this week, American Jewish support for settlements has always been low, but there’s a growing gap between secular and non-Orthodox Jews on one hand – a large majority – and a growing and highly vocal minority of Orthodox and ultra-nationalist Jews who strongly support settlements and believe Israel has already given up too much land to the Palestinians.

Will Obama have the political smarts to keep the majority of Jewish voters calm even as the big pro-Israel organizations work to build opposition?  You can bet Jewish politicos from every part of the spectrum are eagerly awaiting the answer to that question.

So for now: look to Congress for some noise on the subject, lots of partisan potshots and maneuvering and, from a few Jewish members, some righteous indignation.

But there’s not a lot lawmakers can or want to do at this stage, and at least for most Democrats there’s not a lot of appetite for a big fight with a popular president on behalf of a settlers movement seen by many as increasingly violent and extreme.

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.