Lobbies Gear Up Ahead of Bibi-Barack Meet

In the months since U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have taken office, there has been lots of noise made about the relationship between the two men and their respective countries.

But all that has just been speculation, fueled by subtle back-and-forth exchanges in the media by key figures in both counties’ governments. The first real test of diplomacy between the two leaders is set for Monday in Washington, when Netanyahu comes to town for a summit.

One of the most nuanced parts of the two countries’ so-called "special relationship" is the connection of the people of one country to the government of the other.

The strong U.S. support for Israel over many decades has derived from and been strengthened by a core group of Jewish and other traditionally "pro-Israel" lobby groups. The groups, collectively dubbed "the Israel lobby," hold tremendous sway, especially on Capitol Hill, and are considered among Washington’s strongest and most effective special interest groups.

For this reason, Netanyahu must work to keep U.S. Jews and activists on Israel-related issues in his corner. But he has another political consideration to worry about: his relationship with Obama has the potential to affect politics at home.

"For an Israeli prime minister, those relationships are a matter of … political survival, because his opponents at home will quickly jump on any perceived gap with Washington," wrote Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in the Wall Street Journal.

Netanyahu will know this all too well. During his first round as prime minister in the late 1990s, Netanyahu’s rocky relationship with President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) is widely seen as having contributed to his fall from power.

But most observers with an interest in Israel have been treading delicately leading up to the summit, probably because none can be sure what exactly will come of it.

"Seldom are things so much in flux – and I was struck, attending this morning’s very smart panel at the New America Foundation … how uncertain even the best informed people are about what is going to happen going forward," wrote Scott McConnell on MondoWeiss, a U.S. Jewish blog critical of Israeli policy and the U.S. relationship with the Jewish state.

Indeed, the weeks leading up to the summit have seen a flurry of activity from various organisations and actors drumming up support for their preferred outcomes from the meeting. As Abrams put it: "First impressions matter."

In the U.S., the divide in thinking has manifested itself in the battle of ideas being waged between several Jewish and Israeli-interested groups.

Most recently, the two most prominent lobbies – the massively powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the year-old upstart J Street – have been circulating competing letters to Obama in Congress, hoping to enlist support for pushing Obama’s Mideast policy in one direction or the other.

AIPAC is considered to be the more hawkish of the two and J Street the more dovish, formed to offer a "pro-peace" alternative while retaining the "pro-Israel" claim.

The J Street letter encourages the White House to take a robust role in furthering peace agreements between Israel and the Arab world and especially the Palestinians. J Street encouraged members to contact their congresspersons and urge them to sign.

"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," said the letter promoted by J Street. "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 has been signed by three members of Congress, and appears to be in line with the view of the administration.

"The United States is at its best when it’s directly involved," said Obama’s National Security Council chief, Gen. Jim Jones, last week. "If we want to get momentum, we have to be involved directly."

The AIPAC letter, signed and promoted by both House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, calls instead for the U.S. to stay out of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

"[T]he parties themselves must negotiate the details of any agreement," it said.

If the visit does end up precipitating a clash between U.S. and Israeli policy, the crucial outcome is seen to lie with U.S. Jews. Their opinion is important to Netanyahu because Israel relies so heavily of U.S. aid and support, which is seen as a fruit of the Israel lobby.

Obama, on the other hand, considers Jewish voters a key bloc, having won 78 percent of their support in last November’s election.

To that end, various groups have been conducting polling to try to show U.S. Jewish opinion on their side of policy debates.

In one independent Gallup tracking poll over Obama’s first hundred days, released two weeks ago, 79 percent of Jews approved of Obama’s overall job performance.

But lobby groups’ polls reveal a more fractured picture on specific policy areas.

A J Street poll released in March found that 75 percent of U.S. Jews supported a two-state solution. But a poll released in late April by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a hawkish group, found that only 61 percent of U.S. Jews supported the creation of a Palestinian state.

Still, that number still does not suggest a break between U.S. Jews and the Obama administration.

In his Wall Street Journal opinion article, Abrams says it’s not outlandish for a Democrat to lose the support of U.S. Jews: "It can happen," he says, citing President Jimmy Carter’s (1977–1981) reelection bid, when his Jewish support dropped from 71 percent to 45 percent.

Abrams hinges his opinion on the issue of what to do about Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, which has emerged as one of the likeliest points of contention between Obama and Netanyahu: The U.S. is laying the groundwork for engagement with Iran and Israel has hinted that further nuclear development may lead to a unilateral Israeli attack.

"[I]f Mr. Obama is tougher on Mr. Netanyahu than [Iranian leaders], it won’t take long for nerves to fray [among U.S. Jews]," Abrams wrote.

But M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace group that recently sent its own letter, signed by four former U.S. ambassadors, calling for the "immediate renewal of U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel" and a freeze on West Bank construction, disagrees.

"It should be noted that despite what some may think, American Jews are Americans and, it must be said, overwhelmingly Democratic," he wrote last Friday. "They will back their president if he pushes hard for Middle East peace."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.