Leading American Jewish organizations have long claimed to be devoted to forging bipartisan support for Israel in the United States. Yet this is what bipartisanship on Israel looks like on the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress:
• The Republican Jewish Coalition has posted a new video ad slamming President Obama’s talks with Iran and launched a full-page print ad in Sunday’s New York Times.
• Worried that lawmakers might boycott the speech altogether, a board member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) prodded local AIPAC activists to apply pressure on Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to attend.
• While AIPAC was urging lawmakers to attend Netanyahu’s speech in Congress, one leading conservative commentator, Bill Kristol, suggested in a Twitter posting that people attending the AIPAC conference skip speeches by two top Obama administration officials.
• A $200,000 ad campaign by the Emergency Committee on Israel — headed by Kristol and evangelical Christian leader and onetime GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer — takes aim at the Democratic front-runner for president, asking: “Where’s Hillary Clinton? Does she support the boycotters?”
Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, one of the administration officials scheduled to appear at AIPAC this week, has said that Netanyahu — by arranging his speech through congressional Republicans and scheduling it two weeks before Israeli elections — had “injected a degree of partisanship” into his visit.
But several degrees might be a better estimate. Caught off-guard by Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress, the American Jewish organizations and their allies in the legislature have been scrambling to respond to the ensuing uproar. As the Tuesday speech nears, divisions among American Jewish organizations are growing, and the intensity and partisanship of their rhetoric has been rising.
“Jewish leaders, Jewish voters, nobody is going to feel comfortable being put in this situation,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and vice president of the Brookings Institution. “Mainstream Jewish organizations do not want Israel to become a partisan issue.”
Yet that’s exactly what seems to be happening.
For all the talk about bipartisan, unified American Jewish support for Israel, divisions over Israeli policy are of long standing.
But more recently, liberal groups in favor of stronger peace efforts have struck a chord with a broader Jewish audience and have challenged the dominance of AIPAC and other parts of the American Jewish establishment. Although conservative groups say they are more “pro-Israel,” liberal groups argue that the continuing stalemate with the Palestinians poses a greater threat to Israel than would a lasting accord.
“There are two sides of what it means to be a friend to Israel,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president and founder of J Street, one of the liberal organizations that have taken root.“This speech and the whole incident have brought that fissure out into the open. There isn’t really unity. Maybe now we can start to have an open conversation about this thing.”
Netanyahu argues that he wants to engage on one of those underlying disputes: how to prevent a nuclear Iran.
The White House says that talks between Iran and six major world powers, including China and Russia, are worth pursuing. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that Obama was “so focused on pursuing a diplomatic option” because it “is actually more effective than the military option. The military option is one that would, of course, set back the Iranian nuclear program, but only until it can be rebuilt.”
Earnest also said that Iran had destroyed its stockpile of the highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons and that economic sanctions had not fallen apart during negotiations as predicted by critics of the talks.
Yet Netanyahu’s visit and leaks purporting to characterize some of the terms that might be included in a deal with Iran have ignited an emotional attack on the administration’s efforts.
A full-page ad in Saturday’s New York Times from a group called This World showed Rice’s face next to skulls of victims of the Rwandan genocide and accused her of having “a blind spot” to genocide, “both the Jewish people’s and Rwanda’s.” The ad about Rice, who served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council at the time of the Rwanda conflict, was taken out by right-wing reality show star, failed GOP candidate for a House seat and orthodox rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who has in the past received generous backing from gambling mogul and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson.
Another ad, the one from the Republican Jewish Coalition, shows images of massive Tehran street demonstrations, burning U.S. and Israeli flags, and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei amid chants of “Death to America.” A voice-over says: “A nuclear Iran is unthinkable.”
The film shifts to images of Secretary of State John F. Kerry strolling amiably with his Iranian counterpart. “But that’s exactly where President Obama’s negotiations with Iran seem to be headed,” the voice-over says.
The ad goes on to say: “The time for debate is now, not after the deal is done. On March 3 Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu will speak to a joint session of Congress. The stakes are clear. The urgency apparent. We must stop a nuclear Iran.”
Yet if Netanyahu’s goal really is to block a deal on Iran and win new sanctions from Congress, his visit may have already backfired.
Dov Zakheim, a Pentagon official under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, has urged Netanyahu to stay home. He wrote on Foreign Policy’s Web site that “no Democrat could vote for additional sanctions once the issue became one of partisan politics” and added that “Netanyahu may already have damaged his cause beyond repair.”
Indeed, many members of Congress have expressed intense concern since the Netanyahu visit was announced. Some leading Democrats in Congress have balked at joining the traditional procession as the Israeli premier enters the chamber, normally a ceremonial honor.
Greg Rosenbaum, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that the Netanyahu visit has made it easier for him to drum up support among lawmakers for giving the administration time to negotiate with Iran without adopting a proposed bill that would add more sanctions against Iran. Passage of the bill has been one of AIPAC’s main goals.
“Those who might have been more persuadable to sign on to sanctions have taken a second look and said, ‘I’m staying away from that,’ ” Rosenbaum said.
But Kristol said that the White House’s criticism of Netanyahu has only created more interest in the Tuesday speech. “You wonder whether the whole thing backfired a bit for the White House,” he said. “The Obama administration made this a cause celebre.”
On Thursday night, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, trekked to the Capitol to visit with Jewish members of the House Democratic caucus. The purpose was to brief the longtime supporters of Israel on the status of the nuclear talks with Iran, according to Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), but the discussion drifted to the Netanyahu speech.
After Rhodes left, 14 Jewish Democrats remained behind discussing what to do. Most of them blame House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), not Netanyahu, because of the way the invitation was issued: It came only from congressional Republican leaders, and Democratic allies on matters of the Jewish nation’s national security were not consulted.
A majority of the Jewish House Democrats say they expect to attend the speech, out of loyalty to their ally and, for some, out of fear that if there were a mass boycott it would appear as if Democrats had abandoned the only freely elected government in the Middle East.
“When your adversary sets a trap for you,” Israel, the congressman, said of Republicans, “you don’t walk into it.”
Suspicions about the visit serving Netanyahu’s domestic political aims also run strong. Netanyahu used clips from his May 2011 speech to Congress in a political campaign ad last time he ran for reelection. U.S. lawmakers, by comparison, are prohibited from using video from the floor of Congress in their own campaigns.
Even though Israeli leaders usually drop in polls when they bungle relations with the United States, Obama is not well-liked in Israel, and White House criticism — against a backdrop of personal animus between Netanyahu and the president — might be bolstering Netanyahu’s standing.
An article in the Friday edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said that Likud party leaders have “reached the conclusion that every American slap in Netanyahu’s face only strengthens support for their party’s leader among his electoral base.”
Meanwhile, AIPAC, which claims to have learned about Boehner and Netanyahu’s speech plan only after it was decided, has fallen into line and is urging lawmakers to attend.
“AIPAC has always welcomed the prime minister’s speech to Congress, and we believe that this is a very important address,” said AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann. “We have been actively encouraging senators and representatives to attend, and we have received an overwhelmingly positive response from both sides of the aisle.”
While AIPAC tries to rally lawmakers to attend Netanyahu’s speech before Congress, Kristol suggested people attending the AIPAC conference, which began Sunday in Washington, skip speeches by Rice and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power.
“Of course, attendees shouldn’t be rude. But they don’t have to attend these speeches,” Kristol wrote in a tweet.
Reached by phone, Kristol said he wasn’t suggesting a boycott of Rice’s or Powers’s speeches. But he said, “It’s a very busy conference. People might want to take a break, and they might feel it appropriate to take a break during Susan Rice’s speech.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.