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Two Dems blame Israel for spat

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Two Democrats with solidly pro-Israel records are blaming Israel for the hightened U.S.-Israeli tensions.

In an exclusive interview with JTA, the chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), said that Israel deserved much of the criticism it has been receiving over the announcement during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel last week of plans to construct 1,600 housing units in a Jewish neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem.

"The administration had, I think, real justification for being upset because a process was supposed to be in place that would keep it from being blindsided, and that process failed and once again the U.S. was blindsided and the Israelis have to get this right," said Berman, who has taken the lead in the push for new, tougher Iran sanctions. He is considered a staunch supporter of Israel and has strong ties to AIPAC. "They’ve got to put in place a system that keeps this from happening."

Berman also said it was time to move past the recriminations. "The relationship is much stronger than news stories of the last few days that could lead people to believe," he said. "For people who are focused on the strength of the bilateral relationship, I would argue it’s quite strong."

He said Israel had moved toward the Obama administration’s posture in many areas. "On the Israeli side, a Likud prime minister has endorsed strongly and emphatically and unconditionally a two-state goal, and he has indicated his willingness to commence immediately negotiations directly with the Palestinian Authority to resolve all issues, including final status," Berman said.

Also Tuesday, another Democrat with a solidly pro-Israel record, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), issued a statement criticizing Jerusalem for the tensions with Washington while stressing that he felt Israel’s prime minister had taken an important step in expressing regret over the incident.

Meanwhile, as of Tuesday, Democratic congressional leaders appeared to be keeping silent.

For their part, Republican congressional leaders criticized the Obama administration for coming down hard on Israel. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, all issued statements criticizing the Obama administration.

A handful of Jewish Democratic House members from New York — Reps. Eliot Engel, Steve Israel and Anthony Weiner — also have said that the Obama administration went too far with its criticism of Israel. They were joined by a fellow New York Democrat, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is facing a tough re-election fight.

Two other Democrats with substantial Jewish constituencies — Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Ron Klein (D-Fla.) — echoed their New York colleagues, saying it was time for the Obama administration to move past the incident.

"The security threats that the United States and Israel face are too great and too urgent to be overwhelmed by a disagreement among friends," Klein said.

But as of early this week it was unclear to what degree they were reflecting their state’s political realities and constituencies rather than representing a growing unhappiness in the Democratic caucus with the White House’s handling of the issue.

Rep. Christopher Carney, a Democrat representing central and northeastern Pennsylvania, joined Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) in sending President Obama a letter calling on the adminsitration to tone down its criticisms of Israel. And Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) issued a statement saying that he hoped that "the administration will end its unnecessary denunciations of Israel and will instead turn its focus to working with Congress to finally enact strong sanctions on Iran until it stops its pursuit of nuclear weapons."

Some lawmakers, Reps. Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Steve Rothman (D-NY) appeared to avoid casting blame, while insisting that both governments move quickly to patch things up.

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