By TOM RAUM (AP) – 13 hours ago
WASHINGTON — Barack Obama reached out to skeptical Jewish political activists immediately after nailing down his presidential nomination in 2008, promising he would “never compromise” in his support for Israel. Now president, he risks alienating a core Democratic constituency by ratcheting up a public feud with Israel’s prime minister.
Obama’s demands that Israel cancel new housing construction in Palestinian areas of east Jerusalem may be backfiring. The hardball tactic clearly failed to advance prospects for restarting Middle East peace talks, and it may be undermining Obama’s standing among Jewish groups in the United States.
It also enabled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to strike a defiant stance while in Washington, to bask in warm bipartisan praise from congressional leaders and to visit the White House without having to apologize or give in to Obama’s demands.
Yet Israel badly needs the United States as a strong ally. The two leaders are now caught in a high-stakes diplomatic standoff as both sides work to defuse rising tensions.
Netanyahu held closed-door meetings on Wednesday with Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell and other U.S. representatives. But the talks, which extended well into the evening, ended without any breakthroughs.
New Israeli housing construction in lands jointly claimed by Israelis and Palestinians is an issue that has frustrated a succession of U.S. presidents. In most cases, the U.S. has tended to fume then largely look the other way — acknowledging a no-win confrontation.
But Obama chose to take a firm stand in response to Israel’s badly timed announcement — made during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit earlier this month — that it was building 1,600 new housing units in east Jerusalem. Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of their eventual state.
Perhaps emboldened as he moved toward a major domestic victory on health care, Obama dug in his heels and demanded a halt to the new construction. And in a break from tradition that many U.S. lawmakers saw as a snub, the White House accorded Netanyahu’s visit none of the trappings usually extended to an important ally.
The news media were not allowed into any part of the initial 90-minute Tuesday evening meeting between the two leaders, or a follow-up 35-minute session. There was no joint news conference afterward, no statements about what transpired, not even a White House-produced photograph.
Then, providing yet another irritant, Jerusalem officials said Wednesday the city had approved 20 new apartments for Jews in an Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem. The White House said it was seeking “clarification” on Israel’s latest plans.
Jewish voters, one of the most active political blocs in this country, have long expressed some misgivings with Obama, a nervousness that persists today.
It began with false rumors that he was Muslim, his comments during the presidential campaign suggesting a willingness to meet with the leader of Iran and praise from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, for Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made anti-Semitic remarks.
But Obama reached out effectively to court the 5.3-million-strong U.S. Jewish community, the largest in the world outside Israel. He spoke at synagogues, included a stop in Israel on his whirlwind pre-election overseas trip, and ended up with nearly 80 percent of the Jewish vote.
Jewish political activists are also important financial contributors, and their support will be important both in this year’s midterm elections and in the 2012 presidential contest. If they decide to pare back those contributions because of misgivings about Obama’s support for Israel, that could prove costly to Democratic candidates.
Since Obama took office, his relations with Israel have been tense. He has visited the Middle East twice as president, but has yet to schedule an Israeli visit. Last fall, Netanyahu, under pressure from his right-leaning coalition, defied U.S. demands for a full freeze on settlements in the West Bank.
At best, under Obama’s latest prodding, “Netanyahu will likely suspend some construction in east Jerusalem, which could pave the way for restarting Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks,” said Haim Malka, a Middle East scholar for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Even if those talks are restarted, it’s uncertain how the administration intends to move those talks forward or change the strategic calculations of either side,” Malka said. He said “fundamental differences” remain between the Obama administration and Netanyahu over the issues of negotiations, settlements and the fate of portions of Jerusalem captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
While Netanyahu’s reception at the White House was frosty, he was widely praised on Capitol Hill.
“We in Congress stand by Israel,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “We have no stronger ally anywhere in the world than Israel,” said House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The pro-Israel lobby remains a potent one. On what other issue, for instance, have Pelosi and Boehner seen eye to eye?
Officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee rallied to Netanyahu’s defense against the administration’s scolding when he addressed the group on Tuesday. “When disagreements inevitably arise, they should be resolved privately, as is befitting close allies,” said AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr.
Whereas the president usually leads on most foreign policy and national security issues, Congress appears to have a stronger hand on Israel-related matters because of the strength of the lobby and strong bipartisan support for Israel.
The pro-Israel lobby “is almost like a 51st state,” said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. “It’s strong. It has one issue.”
Still, he said, if Netanyahu is trying to drive a wedge between the White House and Congress, he may wind up disappointed. “In the end, the president does have the power” to call most of the shots, Thurber said.