Obama’s Israel visit sparks letter-writing blitz in Congress

One Senate letter urges president to warn the Palestinians of consequences for unilateral anti-Israel actions, while a second missive calls for a sustained US-led peace bid

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

An illustrative image of a joint session of US Congress in May 2012 (photo credit: Lawrence Jackson/White House)
An illustrative image of a joint session of US Congress in May 2012 (photo credit: Lawrence Jackson/White House)

NEW YORK – On the eve of President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel, both houses of Congress sent letters to the president praising him for the visit but urging markedly different courses of action on stalled peace talks.

A letter in the House initiated by the House Republican Israel Caucus and the Democratic Israel Working Group praised Obama for the trip and called Israel “America’s major strategic partner and most important ally in the Middle East.”

The letter was initiated by a bipartisan group of leaders, including Peter Roskam (R-IL), Leonard Lance (R-NJ), Doug Lamborn (R-CO), Henry Waxman (D-CA), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Gene Green (D-TX) and Linda Sánchez (D-CA), and was signed by over 100 House members.

The letter reaffirms the US-Israel alliance, but is careful not to appear to instruct or influence the messages Obama will be bringing on the trip.

The letter tracks closely with the Obama administration’s stated policy on Iran, affirming Obama’s “hope of finding a negotiated solution to Iran’s nuclear program, but also your clear statements that all options are and must remain on the table.”

On peace talks, the letter insists that “peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors must ultimately be achieved through direct negotiations toward a two-state solution without preconditions” – a criticism of Palestinian moves in international institutions. “It is crucial for Israelis to know that America stands with them and will support their sacrifices for peace. And it is vital that Palestinians understand that circumventing direct negotiations, including attempts to upgrade membership status in the United Nations and ICC, will not move their people forward toward statehood,” the letter reads.

A Senate letter spearheaded by senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Susan Collins (R-ME), supported by AIPAC and signed by over 68 senators hours before its expected publication on Tuesday, takes a more aggressive tone in urging Palestinian leaders to come to the negotiating table.

“Palestinian efforts to bypass direct negotiations with Israel by taking unilateral steps for international recognition are, in our view, unacceptable. When you meet with Palestinian leaders, you should make clear that the pathway for peace is through unconditional direct negotiations between both the Israelis and Palestinians and that the United States vigorously opposes any Palestinian efforts to circumvent direct negotiations,” the letter reads.

“It is important to re-emphasize that the United States will not tolerate efforts to isolate or delegitimize Israel,” it states.

While praising Obama for standing “by Israel at the UN and other agencies to try to block such efforts,” it calls on the president to issue an explicit threat on the matter to Palestinian leaders: “It is critical that you now make clear that our relationship with Palestinians will be jeopardized by seeking action against Israel at the International Criminal Court.”

It further demands that the Palestinian Authority “confront the recent surge in violence on the West Bank, cease all anti-Israel incitement and renounce Hamas until it unequivocally meets the three Quartet requirements.”

A second Senate letter, initiated by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, strikes a very different tone, urging Obama to put peace talks high on the agenda of his administration’s foreign policy.

“It is essential for you to reaffirm on your upcoming trip that finding a pathway to peace remains a priority for your administration,” the letter reads.

It hints at a more muscular US approach toward Israel’s government, placing the call for a two-state agreement between the sides alongside US “support for Israel during these difficult times.”

And it assures Obama that “you will find strong support in the Senate for a sustained, US diplomatic initiative to help both parties conclude an agreement. Ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and the Palestinians to make the difficult choices to achieve peace, yet the United States remains indispensable to any viable effort to achieve that goal.”

The Feinstein letter was expected to be made public Tuesday afternoon US time, but had garnered some 20 signatures by senators earlier Tuesday. It also has the support of the left-wing J Street, which brought over 200 student leaders to the Senate Tuesday to lobby for more signatures.

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