JERUSALEM — Israeli officials welcomed President Barack Obama on Wednesday with plenty of pomp and circumstance. He also arrived with plenty of advice from the U.S. Congress on how to approach his first presidential visit to the Jewish state.
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 reaffirms the U.S.-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 Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), supported by AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, and signed by over 68 senators, takes a more aggressive tone in urging Palestinian leaders to come to the negotiating table. Both Pennsylvania senators, Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, signed on to this letter.
“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 U.N. 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 U.S. approach toward Israel’s government, placing the call for a two-state agreement between the sides alongside U.S. “support for Israel during these difficult times.”
And it assures Obama that “you will find strong support in the Senate for a sustained, U.S. 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 had garnered some 20 signatures by senators on Tuesday. It also has the support of the left-wing J Street, which brought over 200 student leaders to the Senate on Tuesday to lobby for more signatures.