Israeli politicians form new caucus to track the U.S. relationship

June 18, 2013

U.S. President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk in Jerusalem in March. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM – As the United States’ position toward Israel and the Middle East continues to evolve, lawmakers in Israel have established, for the first time, a parliamentary caucus aimed at tracking their country's relationship with the U.S. and any issues that might affect relations with their staunchest ally.

On Monday, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Moshe Arens helped launch the Knesset Caucus for Israel-U.S. relations. The group, similar to the Israel Allies Caucus in the U.S. Congress, plans to learn about official American policies and attitudes towards Israel as well as to improve relations with American Jewish organizations and lobby groups.

A poll commissioned ahead of the new Knesset group’s launch by The Ruderman Family Foundation, which works to develop ties between Israel and the U.S. Jewish community, finds that the majority of Israelis see the influence of American Jews in defining their country’s policies towards Israel.

However, on the question of how much Israeli leaders should consider the positions of American Jews or Americans in general on issues relating to the peace process, the majority of respondents said they should not be considered at all or only to a small extent.

Reflecting their understanding of the degree of American Jews’ influence over U.S. policy on Israel, a large number of Knesset members made an appearance, even if only briefly, at the opening meeting. Although it focused on U.S. Jews rather than on the Christian communities that are also an important driver of U.S. policy toward Israel, the meeting's overall message was that Israel can no longer afford to be complacent about its special status in Washington.

This point was highlighted at the start of the meeting by Kurtzer, now a professor at Princeton University, who hinted that the U.S.’s stance on the Middle East – protecting the state of Israel as its top priority – might now be changing, with Washington perhaps turning its emphasis away from the region. He also pointed to declining support for Israel among younger U.S. Jews.

“The next generation of American Jews are talking about the intifada and the asymmetrical wars in Israel, they are Zionists but they are questioning the actions of the state of Israel,” he said, referring specifically to Jewish organizations such as J-Street and outspoken critics of Israeli policies such as Peter Beinart.

The former U.S. ambassador also admonished Israeli ministers and senior officials whom he said were far too critical of U.S. policies towards Israel and its view of the ongoing occupation of the West Bank. He was likely referring to comments made Friday by Defense Minister Moshe Ayalon, who declared U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s new drive to bring about peace a failure.

Arens, also referring to differences of opinion between the Israeli and U.S. administrations, especially on how to achieve peace, pointed out that the “view from Washington does not necessarily need to be the same as the view from Jerusalem.”

Sometimes even husbands and wives have different opinions, he mused, but that does not matter when their overall shared interests are the same.

Knesset caucuses are not always known for their productivity. And as Knesset member Nacham Shai, who will head the new forum, pointed out, this group is meant simply to “help members of Knesset increase their knowledge about the U.S." Still, the underlying message of the caucus's founding is that, after 65 years of close strategic ties, it's high time Israeli parliamentarians better understand what the U.S. wants from them.

Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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