WASHINGTON (JTA) — That Israel problem President Obama had with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Old news.
That Israel problem Obama has with Congress? And with his party?
That’s just beginning.
In two successive speeches — one to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday and another to a joint meeting of Congress the following day, Netanyahu had nothing but praise for the U.S. president.
The friendly notes struck by the prime minister were all the more remarkable in light of how Republicans — and even some Democrats — were rushing to emphasize their differences with Obama on Israel policy.
“Congratulations, Mr. President: You got bin Laden,” Netanyahu said at the outset of his speech to Congress, to thunderous applause. “Good riddance!”
It was just one of the many times over the last two days that Netanyahu was effusive in his praise for Obama.
In his speech to AIPAC’s annual policy conference, the Israeli leader referenced the unprecedentedly close security relationship under Obama between his country and the United States.
“President Obama has spoken about his ironclad commitment to Israel’s security,” Netanyahu told AIPAC. “He rightly said that our security cooperation is unprecedented. He spoke of that commitment not just in front of AIPAC but in two speeches heard throughout the Arab world. And President Obama has backed those words with deeds.”
In his speech to Congress, Netanyahu made it sound as if the difference between the two leaders that erupted last week over 1967 lines was behind them.
“As President Obama said, the border will be different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967,” Netanyahu said, outlining his proposal for talks with the Palestinians.
Although the two leaders are back to speaking flatteringly about one another, substantive differences remain.
Obama in his speech to AIPAC — in which he elaborated on his May 19 Middle East policy speech that drew a rebuke from Netanyahu — said that the 1967 lines would form a basis for negotiations, but ultimately the border between Israel and a state of Palestine would be different. Obama also said there would be swaps, implying that the Palestinians would end up with the same amount of territory.
Netanyahu was determined to get across that Israel would determine the border.
“Israel will be generous on the size of a Palestinian state but will be very firm on where we put the border with it,” he told Congress, suggesting that Israel ultimately would decide the border. “This is an important principle, shouldn’t be lost.”
Netanyahu also said the issue of Palestinian refugees would be resolved by allowing them to return to a state of Palestine, and said Jerusalem would remain the united capital of Israel and under Israeli rule. Obama wanted to defer negotiation of both issues until after determining the borders.
Republicans have made clear that they are ready to exploit those differences in targeting Jewish voters and donors — and that they expected a clear run given the rapturous reception Netanyahu earned from both parties in his congressional appearance. Netanyahu received more than two dozen standing ovations — reportedly more than Obama did for his most recent State of the Union.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, told JTA that Obama had created an opportunity by staking out Middle East policy that so clearly differentiated from Netanyahu’s.
“It’s in our strategic interest as Americans to support Israel, and deviations from that position do not square with voters in our country,” Priebus said. “That’s what we’re going to be singing from the mountaintops for the next 17 months. We’re going to be making a strong play for Jewish voters in 2012, I can tell you that. We just did an eight-city tour in Florida, and we’re going to go back to Florida — we’re not going to let any stone unturned.”
Democrats pushed back. In a joint meeting Netanyahu had with the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Republican Jewish Coalition, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, asked Republicans not to make Israel a campaign issue.
Matt Brooks, the RJC chairman, countered in an open letter to Wasserman Schultz that her call was tantamount to “stifling debate.”
“No one — in either party — whether it’s the president of the United States, a candidate for president or a rank-and-file member — should be shielded from criticism if their positions are harmful to Israel’s well being,” Brooks said.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who participated in a meeting featuring Netanyahu and Jewish lawmakers after the Israeli’s speech to Congress, said that making Israel a partisan issue would only damage the Jewish state in the end. He credited Netanyahu for “dialing back” the tension in his speeches, noting his praise in his speech to Congress for bipartisan support of Israel.
“He tried to bring it back and get this thing off the table as a football,” Ackerman told JTA. “This should not be a wedge issue; there are huge consequences.”
Other Democrats seemed to think the better tack toward deflecting the issue was to isolate themselves from Obama when it came to Israel.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, did not mince words in rejecting Obama’s prescription for negotiations based on the 1967 lines with swaps.
“No one should set premature parameters about the borders, about building, about anything else,” he said in his speech to AIPAC.
The line won a standing ovation.