For anybody worrying about Israel’s decline into deeper repression and occupation (such as the former editor of Haaretz, David Landau), America’s leading Zionist lobby would like you and Congress to shut up, now and forever:
The move, by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), appears aimed at exploiting differences in the Obama administration as it decides how to use the crisis around settlement building in Jerusalem to press Israel towards concessions to kickstart peace negotiations.
Aipac has persuaded more than three-quarters of the members of the US House of Representatives to sign a letter calling for an end to public criticism of Israel and urging the US to “reinforce” its relationship with the Jewish state.
The open letter, which has been circulating among members of Congress for the last week, says that while it is recognised that there will be differences between the two countries, they should be kept behind closed doors. “Our view is that such differences are best resolved quietly, in trust and confidence,” it says.
The public differences, and revelations of Obama’s private snubs of Netanyahu at the White House last week, have proved embarrassing to the Israeli leader at home, where he has been accused of undermining Israel’s most important relationship.
Signatories to Aipac’s letter include Steny Hoyer, the Democrat majority leader, and Eric Cantor, the Republican whip. The wording is similar to an email Aipac sent out during Netanyahu’s visit, describing Obama’s criticisms of the Israeli government as “a matter of serious concern” and calling on the US administration “to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish state”.
But while Aipac has for years influenced US policy on Israel, by targeting members of Congress who criticise the Jewish state, it may no longer have the same impact.
Robert Malley, a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, said the administration’s decision to take a once routine disagreement over settlement construction in East Jerusalem and turn it in to a confrontation is a reflection of the determination in the White House.
“This episode tells us more about the past and the future than the present. It’s a reflection of the accumulated frustration and mistrust of the Netanyahu government by the White House. For the future, they’re headed for a collision on the pace and nature of peace negotiations,” he said. “We’re seeing determination.”
A source, who is consulted by administration officials on Israel policy but did not wish to be named, said that having chosen to take Netanyahu on, Obama cannot afford to back away. “The administration’s credibility is at stake – in Israel and the Arab world. Netanyahu thought he had the better of it last year after he humiliated the president by rejecting his demand for a settlement freeze. If the administration does not follow through on this, or reaches some compromise that takes the heat off the Israelis, I suspect it will be almost impossible for us to get anything off the ground,” he said.