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Congress members' summer trips to Israel a headache for Obama?

81 members of Congress will visit Israel this month during annual summer recess. The visits may pose a challenge to President Obama’s efforts to guide the Mideast peace process and to burnish his foreign policy credentials before the next election.


Though he frequently calls for bipartisan cooperation, US President Barack Obama is likely less than thrilled with the rare united front displayed by Congressional Democrats and Republicans recently.

By the end of August, more than 80 members from both parties of the House of Representatives will have gone to Israel during their summer holiday on trips sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charity linked with influential, Washington DC-based pro-Israel lobby AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee).

Aside from touring historic and religious sites, the House members are meeting top Israeli and Palestinian officials – and relaying a specific message: Congress could move to slash aid to Palestinian territories if Palestinians pursue their bid to be recognised as a state by the United Nations. The UN is set to vote on the matter at next month’s General Assembly.

The visit by members of Congress and their threat to cut funding to Palestinians may pose a challenge to Obama’s efforts to boost the Mideast peace process, as well as to his attempt to burnish his foreign policy credentials ahead of what is expected to be a bruising re-election campaign.

Obama has struggled to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resisting US pressure to halt settlements and negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians stalling. Meanwhile, the White House finds itself in the tricky position of opposing the Palestinian bid for UN recognition while supporting the pro-democracy movements sweeping other parts of the Arab world.

That position becomes even trickier with one-fifth of the House of Representatives heading to Israel this month and making declarations of unconditional support in front of Israeli leaders. “It is difficult for President Obama to demand concessions from Israel when so many members of Congress favour Israel,” Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told FRANCE 24.

‘Drawing a contrast with Obama’

Israel has historically counted the US as its most steadfast ally. Indeed, as Thomas Mann, a senior fellow from the Brookings Institution, pointed out to FRANCE 24, “there is little difference between [Republicans and Democrats] on Israel”; a Congressional resolution stipulating that funds for Palestinians could be restricted if the UN went forward with its vote on Palestinian statehood garnered wide bipartisan support in July.

Earlier this month, while on one of the sponsored Congressional visits to Israel, senior House Democrat Steny Hoyer reminded Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad that Congress would consider cutting off aid to Palestinians if they did not drop their motion for UN recognition. House majority leader Eric Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, has said he would do the same when he arrives in Israel with other Republican lawmakers later in August.

Cantor has said that the show of bipartisan Congressional solidarity with Israel is important because of “the mixed signals coming from the White House” and because of Obama’s “unwillingness” to “unequivocally” stand up for Israel. But according to Darrell West of the Brookings Institution, the nature of the House members’ visits to Israel comes close to a breach in codes of US diplomatic conduct. “Politicians generally don’t draw a contrast with the president while they are travelling abroad. That is thought to weaken American foreign policy and make the country look divided,” West explained. “These leaders are drawing a contrast with Obama on Israel, and that historically has not been done.”

That contrast may serve a strategic purpose for Republicans “hoping to use it as a way of further weakening Obama” before he comes up for re-election in 2012, Mann said. By portraying themselves, and Congress in general, as more supportive of Israel than Obama, Republicans can try to paint Obama as out-of-line with mainstream US foreign policy – a common line of attack among the party’s presidential contenders on the campaign trail recently.

Republican Representative Allen West of Florida, who is in Israel this week, has said that Obama’s policy in the region could be a “problem” for him in the next election. The president has had to defend himself against claims that he is not a strong defender of Israel since his early days on the campaign trail in 2007, and he is widely seen as tougher on Israeli leaders than his predecessors. When Obama called in May for a peace deal based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders (a position that US officials have long endorsed privately but rarely articulated in public), top Republicans – including presidential candidate Mitt Romney – slammed him for “throwing Israel under the bus”.

But Jewish voters in the US – considered, along with African-Americans, to be among the Democratic party’s most loyal constituents – have largely remained loyal to Obama. He garnered nearly 80 percent of the “Jewish vote” in the 2008 election, and a recent Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of US Jews still support Obama.

Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats visiting Israel this summer have been careful to downplay any difference with Obama on Israel. Steny Hoyer, the House Democrat who led his party’s delegation on one of the trips earlier in August, was quoted in the press as acknowledging that support for Israel in Congress was “bipartisan” and “unshakeable”, but that Obama, too, was “absolutely committed to Israel’s security and sovereignty”.

If anything, Mann explained, the motivation for Democrats in joining their Republican colleagues on the summer visits to Israel is “to maintain their traditional strength among Jewish donors and voters” – something that may end up benefiting Obama in his bid to stay in the White House.

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