Groups look to calm U.S.-Israel tensions

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said the administration  was re-evaluating “how we pursue the cause of peace.” Photo by Moshe Zusman/J Street
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said the administration was re-evaluating “how we pursue the cause of peace.” Photo by Moshe Zusman/J Street

American Jewish groups are trying to calm continuing tensions between Jerusalem and Washington in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decisive re-election.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League have all released statements welcoming Netanyahu’s affirmation of support for a two-state solution.

Just days earlier, on the eve of the March 17 Israeli election, Netanyahu had appeared to renounce that support, saying that no Palestinian state would be established while he was prime minister. In interviews two days after the election, Netanyahu said that the comment had been misunderstood.

He also sought to walk back his much-criticized 11th-hour appeal to supporters to counter the “droves” of Arab voters headed to the polls, saying he was trying to mobilize his own supporters — not suppress the Arab vote — and that he is the prime minister of “all Israel’s citizens.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, noting that Netanyahu had “clearly reaffirmed” his support for a two-state solution, criticized the Obama administration for having “rebuffed” the prime minister’s efforts to put relations with the United States back on track.

“Unfortunately, administration spokespersons rebuffed the prime minister’s efforts to improve the understandings between Israel and the U.S.,” AIPAC said. “In contrast to their comments, we urge the administration to further strengthen ties with America’s most reliable and only truly democratic ally in the Middle East.”

The AIPAC statement was one of several from American Jewish groups quick to welcome Netanyahu’s clarifications on two states.

“We believe that the prime minister’s reaffirmations of his positions should be accepted, and, as the new government is formed the parties should work to enhance cooperation between the democratic allies and advance the special U.S.-Israel ties,” said a statement from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the foreign policy umbrella for U.S. Jewish groups.

The Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs also welcomed Netanyahu’s “clarification” in statements released Thursday.

“It is more important than ever to show respect and restraint to allow the prime minister to build his coalition and to publicly express his government’s policies regarding the Palestinians, the international community and other key issues,” the ADL said.

In interviews with MSNBC and National Public Radio last week, Netanyahu sought to contain some of the damage from his pre-election comments. He emphasized that he continued to support a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict but that current circumstances don’t allow for it.

Obama administration spokespeople remained skeptical. Jen Psaki, the State Department spokesperson, said “we can’t forget” about Netanyahu’s earlier statement to a right-wing Israeli news outlet that no Palestinian state would be established during his tenure. Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said there may be “policy implications” for Netanyahu’s statements, echoing several unnamed administration sources who have been quoted in recent days suggesting that the White House may no longer shield Israel from criticism at the United Nations.

“Words do matter, and that I think every world leader or everybody who is in a position to speak on behalf of their government understands that that’s the case, particularly when we’re talking about a matter as serious as this one,” Earnest said. He called Netanyahu’s call to counter the Arab vote “cynical” and a “transparent” bid to marginalize Arabs.

In an interview, Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, called the administration’s stubbornness “unbecoming.”

“To say we won’t forget,” Foxman said, “that’s nasty.”

Meanwhile, the Obama administration said it expects Israel to recommit itself to the two-state solution.

“We will look to the next Israeli government to match words with actions and policies that demonstrate a genuine commitment to a two-state solution,” Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said Monday, addressing the annual conference of J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group.

McDonough made clear that Netanyahu’s comments were an irritant to the relationship between the governments. “In 2009, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly endorsed a two-state solution,” he said.

“Over the course of President [Barack] Obama’s administration, most recently with the tireless efforts of Secretary [John] Kerry, the United States has expended tremendous energy in pursuit of this goal,” McDonough said. “That is why the prime minister’s comments on the eve of the election—in which he first intimated and then made very clear in response to a follow-up question that a Palestinian state will not be established while he is prime minister—were so troubling.”

He continued: “For many in Israel and in the international community, such contradictory comments call into question his commitment to a two-state solution. We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made, or that they don’t raise questions about the prime minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations.”

For this reason, McDonough said, Obama was re-evaluating “how we pursue the cause of peace.”
Obama administration officials said anonymously that one option they are considering in the absence of a peace process is presenting the parameters of a final deal. “In the end, we know what a peace agreement should look like,” McDonough said.

“The borders of Israel and an independent Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” he said. “Each state needs secure and recognized borders, and there must be robust provisions that safeguard Israel’s security. An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state.”

Obama himself last invoked the 1967 borders during a 2011 speech preceding a visit by Netanyahu to the White House, creating a firestorm among pro-Israel groups in the United States and stern admonition from Netanyahu during the visit, calling the borders “indefensible.”

These borders refer to all the land that was controlled by Israel prior to its large territorial annexations following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Pre-1967 borders would reduce Israel back to the borders established during the 1949 armistice – known as the “green line.”

Until now, including throughout Kerry’s attempts at peace negotiations in early 2014, the administration has largely avoided publicly supporting such a call.

McDonough said the differences between the United States and Israel would not affect the security relationship. “Today, our security, military, and intelligence cooperation is stronger than it’s ever been, and that’s not going to change.”

McDonough managed to alter the administration’s tone toward the peace process, railing against the “Israeli occupation” multiple times in his speech.

“President Obama still firmly believes what he said in Jerusalem two years ago – that peace is necessary, just, and possible.  Peace is necessary because it is the only way to ensure that a secure State of Israel is both Jewish and democratic.

Israel cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely. That’s the truth. And as President Obama has said, neither occupation nor expulsion of Palestinians is the answer.  Anything less than true peace will only worsen the

–JTA News and Features
WJW Political Reporter Dmitriy Shapiro contributed to this story.

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