WASHINGTON — As reports proliferate that the US administration is considering stripping Israel of the protective diplomatic umbrella with which it has historically provided the Jewish state in the international arena — including its vetoing of UN resolutions damaging to Jerusalem — a bipartisan group of US senators urged President Barack Obama in a letter Monday to avoid threatening Israel with such punitive measures and to reassert Washington’s support for the state.
The letter obtained by the Times of Israel was signed by two Democrats and two Republicans who did not directly criticize the president’s policies, but did warn that “using the United Nations to push Israel and the Palestinians to accept terms defined by others will only ensure that the parties themselves are not committed to observing these provisions.”
Democratic Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Mark Warner (D-VA) joined with Republican Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) in signing the missive, which stated their opposition to “efforts to bypass direct negotiations and impose peace terms on Israel at the UN and other international bodies.”
The senators reminded the president that America’s “longstanding commitment to Israel transcends any one leader or government” — a not particularly veiled reference to the personal acrimony between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Relations between the two leaders have hit a new low in recent weeks, after Netanyahu appeared before Congress to warn against an impending deal with Iran which the Obama administration has been working on since 2013. The negotiations toward a political framework for a comprehensive deal are expected to conclude by Tuesday and Netanyahu has continued to warn that the deal is one that will endanger Israel’s security.
The tension only increased following Netanyahu’s reelection two weeks after his Congressional address. The Obama administration complained about statements made by Netanyahu in the final days of the campaign, during which he warned that Arab voters were turning out “in droves” to vote against them and said that no Palestinian state would be created during his premiership.
In reaction, the administration indicated that it would “evaluate” its actions toward achieving a two-state solution, hinting that it might not block — and might perhaps even draft — a UN resolution in support of Palestinian independence.
Netanyahu later walked back the latter statement, and apologized to Arab leaders for the former statement, but the Obama administration has continued its critical stance toward Netanyahu.
“We’ve made our point,” a White House official told Politico on Sunday. “The message has clearly been received. The next move is theirs, presumably after the new government has been formed.”
But the administration has been under increased pressure to moderate its stance. The same Politico article reported that a dozen Jewish Democrats in the House of Representatives — including some stalwart Obama allies — had told Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes that Obama needed to tone down his rhetoric regarding Israel.
On Saturday, the Washington Post published a scathing editorial in which the paper’s editorial board declared that “Mr. Obama’s efforts to promote a settlement [with the Palestinians], going back to 2009, ignored innumerable warnings (including from this page) that he was premising his diplomacy on breakthroughs that were not achievable. It is Mr. Obama who has long been pretending, and he compounds his mistake by claiming that the reality he now accepts was created 10 days ago by Mr. Netanyahu’s rhetoric.”
Monday’s letter echoed the same discontent with an administration that has posed challenges to Jewish Democrats who are at pains to emphasize that support for Israel is not just a Republican issue.
“For decades, both Democratic and Republican administrations have stood by Israel in opposing anti-Israel or one-sided resolutions at the UN Security Council and other UN agencies,” the senators noted, telling the president that “we must remain firm in opposing actions that are designed to circumvent direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Such actions, the senators warned, “will set back the opportunities for peace in the long term.”
“We must make clear our willingness to use our veto power to block such efforts at the UN Security Council and our continuing defense of Israel at the United Nations Human Rights Council and other agencies where Israel is under constant assault,” the senators emphasized.
The senators quoted Obama’s own 2011 address to the UN General Assembly in which he told the international body that “ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians — not us — who much reach agreement on the issues that divide them.”