Obama, Netanyahu meet again

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Two months after a tense meeting at the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Obama are set to meet on Tuesday with a deceptively simple mission: getting their picture taken together.

The public show of unity matters for the delicate Middle East peace process and for domestic political consumption on both sides. Of immediate concern to the Democratic Party is the effect a perceived rift could have on the midterm elections, as Republicans angle to use any perceived rupture with Netanyahu to argue that Obama is insufficiently committed to Israel.

Obama was cool toward Netanyahu during their last meeting, leaving the Israeli leader and his aides in the West Wing alone for hours as a subtle rebuke over Israeli settlement policies. The two were never photographed, which in diplomatic code sent a chilly message.

That encounter followed an announcement by Israel, during a visit to the country by Vice President Biden, of a plan to construct 1,600 Jewish homes in a part of East Jerusalem that Palestinians view as their future capital.

This next meeting has been promised as "a makeup visit," one senior Democratic lawmaker said, giving the two leaders a chance to demonstrate at least some degree of solidarity. On Monday, administration officials said that they were confident the visit would go smoothly and that they had made progress in recent days in demonstrating cooperation between the United States and Israel.

At the same time, they noted, Netanyahu's meeting with Obama will be his fifth. "No other foreign leader has had as much face time with the president," one senior administration official said.

Already, from Illinois to Florida, Republican candidates have been raising Israel as part of a broader critique of Obama's foreign policy, seeking to chip away at national-security-minded independents and Jewish voters who traditionally support Democrats. When Obama made statements of measured support for Israel after a raid on a Turkish flotilla carrying aid to Gaza last month, Marco Rubio, the Republican candidate in Florida's Senate race, delivered a speech sharply criticizing Obama's Israel policy. "There is the emerging sense that this long-standing relationship isn't what it used to be," Rubio said.

Robert Dold, a Republican running for an open seat in the 10th Congressional District of Illinois, has accused the administration of an "alarming pattern" in the Middle East. In Ohio's 15th District, Republican Steve Stivers questioned Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D) about her criticism of Israel's Gaza blockade, with his campaign saying, "The contrast is very sharp on this issue." And Allen West, a Republican running against Democratic Rep. Ron Klein in Florida's 22nd District, said Obama was "browbeating" Israel.

"Republicans are accusing the administration of not being strong enough on the flotilla incident," acknowledged Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), himself a critic of some elements of Obama's approach. "I think the president has made some unfortunate statements; there's no doubt about it, in terms of appearing to put public pressure on Israel while appearing not to put the same type of intense pressure on Palestinians. And that has caused a lot of angst among lots of people."

Whether such angst could become politically potent enough to tip scales in the November midterms is up for debate. Although some Jewish leaders are wary of his policies toward Israel, Obama enjoys support from Jewish voters. He won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, nearly as much as any Democratic nominee in recent history, and his approval rating among U.S. Jews has hovered in the 60s for much of his presidency.

Israelis are much more skeptical of Obama, with one widely quoted and controversial poll last year putting his popularity in Israel in the single digits. That, in turn, has had a ripple effect on Jews in the United States, giving Republicans an opening to appeal to a generally Democratic constituency and creating distance between the White House and congressional Democrats.

Several lawmakers said the White House position, and that of some liberal Democrats in Congress, is far more nuanced than Republicans give credit for. Far from being anti-Israel or unwilling to back the Jewish state, they say, they are pressuring the country to take steps that would ensure its long-term existence as well as peace. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss freely sensitive deliberations.

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