Israel lobby swings into action over 'road map'

The Israel lobby has been quick to chime in on the White House's Middle East efforts, with some groups taking a more measured stance while others have picked more distinct ends of the spectrum.

President Obama has stressed that halting all settlement activity in the disputed West Bank is key to moving a two-state solution forward. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear after his meeting with Obama last month that the demand was a non-starter. "Natural growth" being the operative term, Netanyahu said construction in the settlements would be allowed to continue.

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Tensions have become evident in the U.S.-Israel relationship since the two leaders sat down in the Oval Office. Before departing for the Middle East for his address in Cairo, Egypt, to the Muslim world, Obama popped in on a White House meeting between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones, reportedly following up on his call the previous day to halt the "natural growth" in the West Bank. The next day Barak, leader of the center-left Labor Party, said that the White House needed to "water down its remarks, briefings and leaks, so that we can talk about fundamental issues."

As the tension spilled beyond the halls of government, West Bank settlers even disdainfully dubbed an illegal outpost the "Obama Hut."

Some Israel lobbying groups have staked out turf on different sides of the rift between the Obama and Netanyahu governments, while others have maintained more tempered — yet equally vocal — ground.

"As you know, the U.S. and Israel are engaged in a close, ongoing, high-level working group dialogue on a wide range of issues and we agree with over three-quarters of Congress, who are saying very clearly in their letter to President Obama that the proven best way forward is for the U.S. to work closely and privately with our friends in Israel, both when we agree and especially in areas where we may disagree," American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spokesman Josh Block said last week.

"The notion that Israeli steps stopping natural growth in the settlement blocs will turn the Muslim world around is an illusion," Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman wrote in an editorial for the organization.

"On the American side, there needs to be acknowledgement [sic] and appreciation that Netanyahu is taking political risks by dismantling the illegal outposts," Foxman wrote. "Also, more needs to be done to make clear that, while America is asking certain things from Israel, that Israel is our great ally and that we never want to leave the impression that we are weakening ties with Israel in order to win over the Muslim world. Finally, the U.S. must understand Israel's issue with natural growth, with room for compromise on the issue."

J Street, however, stipulates that "a freeze means a freeze" and that there should be no natural-growth exceptions in the settlements.

"You can bet the Obama Administration is already hearing from hawkish voices on Israel — urging him to make exceptions, allow for more settlement growth, and to go slow," the group says on its website. "We've got to make sure the President knows pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans support his strong line on settlements, for both Israel's and America's sake and security."

J Street countered the May 1 AIPAC-backed letter — which was authored by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and signed by 329 House members, urging President Obama to pursue Middle East peace but to keep Israeli security paramount in negotiations — by backing one of its own.

Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.), and Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) authored a letter to Obama that favors "strong consideration" for the Saudi-drafted Arab Peace Initiative and urges the president to keep pushing for a speedy resolution.

"Unfortunately, Israelis and Palestinians have not been able to achieve peace on their own, and we therefore share your belief that American leadership is essential to achieving meaningful progress," states the letter, which was delivered to Obama as he left for the Middle East with 86 House signatories. "Left to themselves, the parties have been unable to make the necessary progress toward ending the conflict, and an American helping hand is now needed to bridge those gaps."

Last week, JStreetPAC also launched a fundraising drive for the reelection campaign of Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) after complaints about her stances on Israel by Jewish community leaders. As of Friday, J Street reported the drive had reaped nearly $30,000 from about 600 individual donations.

Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) President Morton Klein, meanwhile, said in a statement last week that it "seems an effort is being made to invest Muslims with outsized significance in American society, perhaps as a prelude to placing further distance between Israel and the United States than the President has already done by ignoring Palestinian non-fulfillment of their signed obligations to end terrorism and the incitement to hatred and murder that feeds it, while demanding that Jews stop building and developing their communities in Judea, Samaria and eastern Jerusalem."

A ZOA action alert urges members to call or e-mail Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to take her to task on furthering the administration's demand that West Bank settlement activity cease.

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"Jewish homes comprise only 6 percent of the land area of Judea and Samaria," states one of the suggested arguments to Clinton. "Jews represent approximately 10 percent of the population. Regardless of the final disposition of these territories under any future agreement, Jews should be allowed to live there."

The American Jewish Committee took out a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal featuring mugs of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, stating, "Not everyone wants Israel to live in peace: We stand with Israel against the preachers of hate. And we stand with Israel in its age-old quest for peace."

“President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have now expressed the shared U.S.-Israel commitment to achieve negotiated Arab-Israeli peace,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris on Sunday after Netanyahu's acceptance of a demilitarized Palestinian state. “Let us hope that Palestinian and Arab leaders will seize the opportunity to join with Israel on the path of peace. As Egypt and Jordan already have found, Israel will be a willing partner.”

An Institute for National Security Studies survey released Sunday found 75 of Israeli Jews supporting the evacuation of illegal outposts in the West Bank, with 25 percent saying such outposts should be dismantled. Fifty-eight percent of Israeli Jews supported continued expansion of West Bank settlements, while 42 percent opposed all settlement construction.

"Israel has an ancient connection to the West Bank but has repeatedly been willing to give up land for peace," said Roz Rothstein, international director of StandWithUs, told The Hill. "For there to be lasting peace in the region, however, the Palestinians must first achieve internal law and order, stop launching rockets into Israeli cities and teach peace to their children.  

"President Obama should consider learning from the past mistake made when Israel left Gaza for peace in 2005 and has been attacked by thousands of rockets from Gaza ever since."