Top Democrats have joined a number of Republicans in challenging President Obama’s policy toward Israel, further exposing rifts that the White House and its allies will seek to mend before next year’s election.
The differences, on display as senior lawmakers addressed a pro-Israel group late Monday and Tuesday, stem from Obama’s calls in recent days for any peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians to be based on boundaries that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, combined with “mutually agreed swaps” of territory.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and other Democrats appeared to reject the president’s reference to the 1967 lines in his latest attempt to nudge along peace talks, thinking that he was giving away too much, too soon.
White House officials say Obama’s assertion did not reflect a shift in U.S. policy. But the president’s comments touched a nerve among pro-Israel activists, drew a rare Oval Office rebuke from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and instantly became a litmus test in domestic American politics.
Now Obama — whom critics often accuse of employing a play-it-safe governing style in which he waits for others to take the lead — is largely isolated politically in raising the issue of boundaries.
By this week, White House aides were reaching out to Israel supporters in the Jewish community to try to ease concerns, according to people familiar with the effort. The White House has arranged a conference call with Jewish leaders and contacted others for advice on repairing ties.
The political uproar, coming as Netanyahu received a bipartisan hero’s welcome Tuesday for a speech to Congress, underscored the careful calculations being made by leaders in both parties.
Democrats and Obama must balance the need to pursue delicate international diplomacy while retaining the party’s traditional support among Jewish campaign donors and voters, particularly in competitive states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The party’s liberal base, however, is divided, with many on the left urging more concessions by Israel.
Republicans increasingly consider Israel a core issue that can unify sometimes disparate party factions, with evangelical voters and foreign policy hawks alike emerging as some of the Jewish state’s most vocal U.S. backers.
Netanyahu, who since Thursday has repeatedly called the 1967 borders “indefensible,” helped set the stage for the torrent of White House criticism.
His response was quickly followed by criticism from Republicans vying to take on Obama next year. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the presumed GOP front-runner, accused the president of throwing Israel “under the bus.” Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty said Obama had made a “mistaken and very dangerous demand.”
The pressure from Republicans and fellow Democrats leaves the White House and top political aides with the added task of making amends with Israel backers by touting Obama’s history of support for that nation.
Among the prominent Israel supporters upon whom Obama has relied for advice are Lee Rosenberg, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Alan Solow, who will leave his post as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations next month. Both have been key behind-the-scenes advocates for Obama in reassuring skeptical backers.
This week, the president’s newly chosen national Democratic Party chairman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, signaled that she, too, will serve as an emissary. Her South Florida district is home
to one of the country’s biggest Jewish populations, a place where Obama’s 2008 campaign tapped prominent Jewish lawmakers and local elected officials to visit synagogues and community centers and debunk rumors that Obama is a Muslim and anti-Israel.
“As a Jewish member of Congress who cares deeply about preserving Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, I am proud that President Obama spoke forcefully about continuing the United States’ strong and stalwart support of Israel,” Wasserman Schultz said in a written statement.
As part of their defense, a number of White House allies said Tuesday the political row had been fueled by Netanyahu, who seized on Obama’s reference to the 1967 lines but glossed over his additional point regarding land swaps.
Appearing irritated by the controversy, Obama said in his own speech to AIPAC on Sunday that his views had been “misrepresented several times.”