WASHINGTON (Sep. 3)
Bracing for an anticipated policy clash with the Clinton administration, the Israeli government has spent the summer shoring up support from Republican members of Congress.
“We’re going to need you” — that’s the message officials in Jerusalem have been sending to visiting lawmakers and party leaders, worried that the Clinton administration will ask too much of the Jewish state as it pushes to restart peace talks.
By all accounts, the GOP is enthusiastically answering the call.
“We will continue to apply pressure that will be helpful to the Israeli government that the administration cannot ignore,” Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson said upon his return from a recent visit to Israel.
With U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s first trip to the Middle East aimed at reviving a moribund peace process, there is a widespread expectation that the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Clinton administration will clash over Israeli settlement policy as well as construction in eastern Jerusalem.
Already-strained negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians came to a virtual standstill in March when Israel launched a new Jewish neighborhood at Har Homa and Palestinian terrorists attacked a Tel Aviv cafe.
In the wake of a terror bombing in Jerusalem, which killed 15 Israelis, Albright was expected to push the Palestinians to crack down on terror as she seeks an Israeli limit on new construction.
The question is when the disagreement with Israel will erupt — and how public it will be.
Believing that Clinton is sensitive to public pressure and partisan heat over his Middle East policy, senior Israeli officials met with more than two dozen visiting members of Congress in recent months, asking them to be “a lever” against the administration, according to sources.
While the call went out to many Democrats as well as to Republicans, it is the majority party that is best positioned to pressure the president.
Many Republicans see the Israeli government’s request for support as a golden opportunity to put to bed the perception that the GOP cannot be trusted when it comes to Israel.
The stakes are high.
Although the next congressional election is more than a year away, both parties are mindful of the fact that with just a few thousand more votes, Democrats could regain control of the House of Representatives.
Therefore, the potential to make inroads into the solid support that Democrats enjoy in the American Jewish community has the GOP champing at the political bit.
“There is no political calculus that if we support Netanyahu, it will help us in the next election,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group.
“But nobody will be disappointed if it make us look strong in the Jewish community.”
It is ironic that not long ago, the Israelis were asking the Democrats to protect Israel from a Republican administration. A strategy to recast the Republican Party as the address for pro-Israel politicians would have been unthinkable.
Indeed, even diehard Republicans are not drawing any equivalency between Clinton, generally seen as a strong friend of Israel, and his predecessor. Under George Bush, relations with Israel were strained.
But now the roles are changing.
Relations between Israel and the United States flourished with the simultaneous ascent of Clinton and the late Yitzhak Rabin — both of whom agreed on key elements of the then-burgeoning peace process.
Now, with progress on the peace front largely frozen, differences between Clinton and Netanyahu, a more hard-line premier, are inevitable.
For its part, Congress historically has taken on the role of critic when it comes to the president’s foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.
And already, the GOP has taken advantage of the opportunity to position itself in Israel’s corner.
During the past year, Capitol Hill has attacked the Clinton administration for:
Postponing the required move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem;
Sending U.S. Consul General Edward Abington to a spring conference in Gaza where Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat attacked Israeli policies;
Fighting for U.S. aid to the Palestinians even after the State Department decided it could not certify the Palestinians were in compliance with their accords with Israel; and
Defending trade with Syria while Syria allows planes to resupply the militant Islamic group Hezbollah through the Damascus airport.
While some Democrats joined these initiatives, including calls to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, they were almost always Republican-led.
And the GOP appears ready for more.
In a recent round table interview with a small group of Jewish reporters, Nicholson pointed to his August trip to Israel — his first overseas trip as chairman — as proof that the party assigns a high priority to its pro-Israel policies.
“You’ll continue to see pressure from the Republicans on this administration to be supportive of the resolve that there is on the part of the [Israeli] government for peace, peace through strength, peace through compliance with the Oslo accords,” said Nicholson, whose visit was sponsored by the National Jewish Coalition.
But Nicholson’s spin and the Republican strategy has left Democrats bristling at the suggestion that the Clinton administration needs any push in the pro- Israel direction.
“It’s very easy to issue press releases and talk the talk,” said Steve Grossman, national chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
“But when it comes to dealing with American policy that is supportive of the Israeli people and their leader, this administration needs a lecture from no one, least of all the Republican leadership or Jim Nicholson,” said Grossman, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby.
In a sign of how sensitive the issue is, Grossman sought out the reporters who met with Nicholson to comment on the GOP’s Israel policy.
But the Republicans are not backing down, engaging instead in some potent rhetoric.
“The majority’s role is to support Netanyahu and to support the protection of Israel from the violence and the arrogance of Arafat,” said Rep. Jon Fox (R- Pa.), a co-chair of the Israel caucus in the House.
“Frankly, it’s against the Congress’ wishes to ask Israel to stop building at Har Homa” and to curtail settlement construction, Fox said. “We must be used as a lever to educate the president on the importance of backing Israel.”
During a recent trip to Israel, Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, took Arafat to task for not cracking down on Palestinian militants.
“The question is, has Arafat truly committed himself to the path of non- violence? So far, I’m not convinced,” Gilman said at a memorial service at the Mahane Yehuda market, the site of a double suicide bombing in July, which claimed 15 Israeli victims.
Perhaps most significantly, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has used his Speaker of the House pulpit to lambaste the Palestinians on numerous occasions and voice his strong support for Israel.
After a speech he made in April to AIPAC, a major financial supporter of Vice President Al Gore lamented that he wished Gore had given Gingrich’s speech.
While Republican officials acknowledge that much of the GOP’s pro-Israel strategy rests on rhetoric, they say some of their legislative initiatives have forced the administration to pay more attention.
Congressional Democrats have been left in a bind.
“Obviously the Congress has been more in favor of the positions of Israel than the State Department and White House,” specifically on Jerusalem, said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.)
“I do not think people take a pro-Israel position to needle the White House,” said Sherman, who recently returned from a trip to Israel, “but the flip side is that those with the party of the White House may feel some pressure or commitment to back the State Department.”