Senate Dems might join rebuff of Obama on Israeli border issue
By Alexander Bolton - 05/25/11 06:30 AM ET
Senate Democrats are expected to support a resolution intended as a rebuff to President Obama’s call for basing Middle East peace talks on the 1967 Israeli-Palestinian borders.
It would be a rare rebuke of the president by the upper chamber and a sign that Democrats are worried about the impact of last week’s speech on the U.S.-Israel relationship and pro-Israel constituents.
Democrats in both chambers are scrambling to fix the damage caused when Obama called for the 1967 borders and land swaps as a basis for peace.
Some Democrats have tried to downplay the rift, but Israel’s strongest supporters in Congress say there’s no denying that Obama made a tactical mistake in handling the relationship.
“I wish that the president had not made the speech on Thursday, particularly not made it — I gather — without much consultation” with Israel, said Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an Independent who caucuses with Democrats. “So I think it was a tactical mistake.”
Lieberman said he was reassured by the president’s follow-up speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Sunday but thinks additional steps need to be taken.
He is working with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on a resolution that would show broad consensus within Congress that the 1967 Israeli-Palestinian borders are not only “indefensible,” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, but also contrary to U.S. national security interests.
Draft language of the resolution states “it is contrary to the U.S. policy and national security to have the borders of Israel return to the boundaries of 1949 or 1967.”
Democratic leaders have scrambled to mend fences in the wake of the speech, which GOP strategists say they will use as a wedge between the Democratic Party and Jewish voters and donors.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rebuked Obama over Israel in a speech to AIPAC on Monday.
“The place where negotiating will happen must be the negotiating table — and nowhere else. Those negotiations will not happen — and their terms will not be set — through speeches, or in the streets, or in the media,” Reid told the audience, bringing it to a standing ovation. “No one should set premature parameters about borders.”
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) offered a similarly rousing defense of Israel while speaking to AIPAC on Sunday.
“Israel’s borders must be defensible and must reflect reality on the ground,” he said in speech that was seen as a slap at Obama’s remarks. “Peace can only be achieved by a return to the negotiating table without preconditions.”
Lieberman and Hatch predicted the resolution would win broad support from Democrats.
Several Democratic senators, including Carl Levin (Mich.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), said they would not take a position until they reviewed the resolution.
Others voiced quick support.
“I would agree with that,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said of the draft language, cautioning that he had to read the resolution before making a final decision.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said there’s “total agreement” in Congress that “the ’67 lines will not work.”
Cardin said he was aware of Senate discussions about the Lieberman-Hatch resolution but had not yet read it.
Lieberman and Hatch said they hope to introduce it on Wednesday.
House Republican leaders have yet to make a decision on moving a companion resolution through the lower chamber, according to a senior GOP aide.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said Obama’s remarks represented “nothing new whatsoever.”
“Nobody is talking about going back to the 1967 border,” Kerry said. He noted the president specifically called for mutually agreed-upon land swaps as a mechanism for changing those original borders.
Lieberman, however, said it was new for a sitting president to set these parameters for negotiation.
He added that “swaps,” while a term of art among foreign policy analysts, is a loaded term for many Israelis because it brings to mind one-for-one swaps of land parcels, an unpopular notion in Israel.
He raised doubt as to whether one-for-one swaps are a “fair” request to make of the Israelis.
Lieberman also questioned the manner of the speech’s delivery, coming at a time of tremendous political uncertainty in the Middle East, and the lack of prior consultation with Netanyahu. He said it failed to reflect Israel’s status as one of the U.S.’s closest allies.
“To my way of thinking, we’re dealing with a very close ally in Israel, and the world around Israel has changed a lot since the first of the year,” Lieberman said. “As I understand this, the Israelis only heard about this Wednesday night. This would have been much better, much more constructive if there had been some discussion and negotiation between the U.S. and Israel before the president was in a position to go out publicly.
“It puts Israel in an awkward position,” he said.
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