Despite tensions, visiting US lawmakers affirm strong bonds

Despite tensions, visiting US lawmakers affirm strong bonds

Democrats and Republican meet with Netanyahu, Peres, insist US-Israel alliance unharmed by recent spats

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

President Shimon Peres meets with Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN), left, and Congressman Stephen Lynch (D-MA), right) in Jerusalem on March 20, 2014. (photo credit: Ambassador Dan Shapiro, Facebook)
President Shimon Peres meets with Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN), left, and Congressman Stephen Lynch (D-MA), right) in Jerusalem on March 20, 2014. (photo credit: Ambassador Dan Shapiro, Facebook)

Three American lawmakers, in Israel for meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, insisted on Thursday that high-profile disagreements — and even disparaging comments in recent months — have not dampened support for the US-Israel alliance.

Shortly after meeting with Netanyahu Thursday afternoon, Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) suggested the meeting “emphasized how unbreakable the relationship is with Israel regardless of what any official says at any one time.”

Following the discussion with the prime minister, primarily on the Iran nuclear talks and the peace process with the Palestinians, “I can say [Israel and the US] are very much aligned,” Ayotte told The Times of Israel.

Asked how recent disparaging remarks by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s about Secretary of State John Kerry and American foreign policy generally might affect the relationship, Ayotte said she “will let [Ya’alon] address his own comments.” But she added: “I don’t think his comments can be interpreted at all as [an expression of] the friendship being weakened.”

Ayotte’s comments downplaying the tensions between a top Israeli minister and the Democratic White House over policy differences is particularly noteworthy because of her own criticism of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. A Republican, Ayotte has become a key voice in Congress arguing in favor of a more assertive foreign policy than the president’s.

“I’ve been very clear on administration foreign policy on many fronts,” she noted, and in particular on the administration’s “reset” policy with Russia.

As recently as Monday, she said in a talk at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center for Leadership that the White House’s policy toward Russia “has actually resulted in the Russians interpreting our conciliatory measures as weakness.”

But on Thursday, speaking in Israel to an Israeli media outlet, she focused on praising the administration for the latest round of sanctions leveled by President Barack Obama against Russian officials close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including some believed to be stewards of some of the Russian president’s personal fortune.

Ayotte told The Times of Israel she was “very pleased” with the new sanctions, adding that they “send a message.”

Meanwhile, Ayotte’s two Democratic colleagues on the trip, Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Congressman Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, affirmed the strength of the alliance, but hinted at an undercurrent of frustration.

The relationship “is as strong as could be,” said Donnelly. “When we were with [Netanyahu] tonight, there was a very clear understanding on both [sides] that we’re standing shoulder to shoulder.”

Yet, he added, there was palpable frustration in the US administration. “Sometimes you scratch your head and wonder what more I can do to show it to you,” he said, saying he felt that sentiment among senior administration officials.

“I can’t explain why the defense minister would say that,” he said of Ya’alon’s comments.

Lynch, too, believed the alliance itself was unshaken. “The relationship is at the citizen level,” he insisted.

And tensions were nothing new. “We’ve often had leaders in Israel and the US who said or did controversial things, whether that’s President [Jimmy] Carter or President [Ronald] Reagan or Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon. But we get past those things.”

Even so, like Donnelly, he also knew of “some people voicing concern at the perceived lack of appreciation” for all that the US does to strengthen the alliance with Israel.

“Calling our president feeble [on Iran] was not helpful, not helpful,” said Lynch. “It’s a complicated issue and he’s doing everything he can” to achieve a good outcome.

“But [Ya’alon] apologized,” he concluded. “The apology was accepted. Let’s move on.”

The three lawmakers also met with Peres, in part to present a Congressional medal to the president for his years of work in fostering the US-Israel alliance. They visited Iron Dome and Arrow missile defense facilities — Ayotte and Donnelly are both on the Senate Armed Services Committee — and met with residents of the rocket-battered southern town of Sderot.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said “they communicated their strong support for US assistance to Israel and their commitment to Israel’s security.”

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