Obama Administration Under Fire for Its Stance on Israel
March 16, 2010The Obama administration took flak from pro-Israel lawmakers Monday for its public dressing down of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
A scheduled trip to the region by White House Middle East envoy George Mitchell has been put on hold, but State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley did not directly link the delay with the dispute. Mitchell’s travel plans were not settled, he said, and the U.S. is awaiting Israel’s formal response to unspecified demands by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
For the past several days, U.S. officials have voiced anger over an announcement by an Israeli planning body, made during last week’s visit by Vice President Joe Biden, of preparations to construct 1,600 new housing units.
Having apologized several times for the timing of the announcement, Netanyahu went on the offensive Monday, declaring in a speech in the Knesset (parliament) that no Israeli government in four decades had limited building in the city.
Netanyahu listed nine prime ministers and named a number of neighborhoods, all within several miles of the Knesset, which he said had been developed over that period.
“The establishment of these Jewish suburbs did not harm the Arabs of east Jerusalem in any shape or form and did not come at their expense,” he said. “Today, nearly half of Jerusalem’s Jewish population lives in these suburbs.”
Across the political spectrum in Israel, Netanyahu stated, “everyone agrees that all of these neighborhoods will remain part of Israel in any final peace settlement.”
U.S. condemnations of the housing announcement, from Biden, Clinton and White House advisor David Axelrod, prompted statements of concern by pro-Israel organizations in the U.S. over the weekend.
Members of Congress supportive of Israel, mostly Republicans, waded in on Monday.
GOP House Leader John Boehner accused the administration of a “pattern” of snubbing or ignoring allies while making concessions to countries acting against U.S. interests. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor called the administration’s stance “beyond responsible” and said it was ignoring “a host of Palestinian provocations that undermine prospects for peace in the region.”
Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the administration approach was “encouraging the enemies of America and Israel alike.”
“I am also deeply concerned about the administration’s softer approaches towards the Palestinian Authority, Syria, and Iran, which are being carried out in conjunction with hard-line tactics against our key democratic ally, Israel,” she said. “Our nation’s security cannot afford a foreign policy which isolates our allies and moves towards appeasing enemies of the U.S.”
Criticism also came from Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley (Nev.), a pro-Israel lawmaker who co-chairs a congressional task force on Israel at the U.N.
In the Senate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for the tone to be tempered, and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said the dispute “doesn’t serve anybody’s interests but our enemies.”
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) in a statement urged the administration to support Israel. “Rather than launching verbal attacks on our staunch ally and friend, it would be far more worthwhile for this administration to expend the effort planning for the transfer of our embassy to Jerusalem and tackling the growing Iranian nuclear threat,” he said.
Sympathy for Israel at 20 year high
Although Jewish organizations have been strongly critical of the administration’s stance in recent days and some of the lawmakers who have spoken out are Jewish too, support for Israel among Americans goes well beyond the Jewish community.
In a Gallup poll of American opinions released three weeks ago, 63 percent of respondents said their sympathies in the Middle East situation lay more with the Israelis than with the Palestinians. Gallup said it was the highest number to take that position in its polling since 1991, shortly after Saddam Hussein fired missiles at Israel during the Gulf War.
Fifteen percent of respondents in the new poll sided more with the Palestinians, a result that was down slightly from the figure recorded in the past three years but roughly average over the longer period. A further 23 percent favored either both sides, neither side, or had no opinion.
Among Republican respondents, sympathies for Israel rather the Palestinians stood at 85 percent, having climbed steadily climb since 2001, when 60 percent held that position.
Forty-eight percent of Democrats sympathized with Israel rather the Palestinians. The Democratic trend since 2001 has been somewhat less marked than the GOP one, fluctuating between a low of 41 percent (2005) and a high of 54 percent (2009).
The Gallup poll also asked Americans to rate 20 nations figuring prominently in the news. Israel received a 67 percent favorable opinion, coming in at number five (after Canada, Britain, Germany and Japan.)
The Palestinian Authority – not a nation, but included in the 20 listed – received a 20 percent favorability rating, fourth from the bottom (with only Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran scoring worse.)