What does it mean to be a friend of Israel?

Some within the Republican Party have turned the Middle East conflict into a focal point of an internal political dispute.

al-monitor Las Vegas gaming tycoon Sheldon Adelson attends the second Annual Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala in New York, May 18, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Mike Segar.

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us congress, us-israel relations, sheldon adelson, republican party, jews, israeli elections, israel, benjamin netanyahu

Feb 18, 2015

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to a joint session of Congress on March 3 is already provoking numerous reactions against his use of American politics to promote himself in the runup to the March 17 Knesset election.

His supporters, on the other hand, claim that in the struggle against a nuclear Iran, which they claim threatens Israel’s very existence, the end justifies the means, even when the means are a direct confrontation with the US president. They believe that a leader who believes that his small country is fighting for its life not only has the right to use all the tools at his disposal to avert a disaster, but is duty bound to do so. It is only fitting that every US politician who views himself as a “friend of Israel” should also step up and stand by Israel in its hour of need.

But does the conduct of the Republican leadership toward Israel in general and the speech in particular make it worthy of this friendship? Also, is the US House of Representatives, irrespective of party, religion and gender, really a friend of Israel? Who is worthy of this title, and who simply claims to deserve it?

Let’s start with House Speaker John Boehner, the man who cooked up the scheme for Netanyahu to give his speech behind President Barack Obama’s back. It will take some considerable effort to locate an objective expert on US-Israel relations who will find in Boehner’s move even an iota of a contribution to the ties between the two countries.

An experienced senior politician like him knows that no country, especially not Israel, has an interest in embarrassing the president of the United States. What was so urgent that Boehner had to light a fire under the combustible relationship between Netanyahu and Obama? After all, a classified report compiled by the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s intelligence division in Jerusalem and published Feb. 15 determined that the prospects of Iran accepting the demands of the world powers and signing an agreement by the end of March not only have not increased, but actually shrunk.

Boehner did, indeed, open doors for Netanyahu on Capitol Hill, but in so doing slammed shut the doors to the White House for the Israeli leader. As the price for an unnecessary speech, which has generated controversy among members of Congress and the US Jewish community, Israel created for itself a deep crisis with the administration. If Netanyahu wins the election, this issue will hound Israel until the end of Obama’s term.

Boehner acted behind the back of his Democrat colleagues as well. He operated contrary to the tradition by which pro-Israeli initiatives enjoy bipartisan support. Former Israeli-Palestinian peace talks coordinator, Ambassador Dennis Ross, firmly criticized Boehner Feb. 17 for breaching this tradition. Speaking at the Haaretz Israel conference on democracy, Ross warned of the long-term implications of this dangerous precedent, and even proposed to cancel the speech.

The next contenders for entry to the Israeli "friendship" club are Republican Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Last month, these two started promoting proposed legislation requiring the administration to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. A similar bill was proposed 20 years ago by GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole and then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. They went behind the backs of President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The White House National Security Council warned that a violation of the status quo in Jerusalem would cause serious damage to peace efforts and generate severe reactions against the United States in the Arab world. Although three presidents (Democrats Clinton and Obama, and Republican George Bush) signed waivers postponing the move, the Jerusalem card is apparently being used once again for congressional politics.

What motivates politicians like Boehner, Gingrich and the like? Is it love of Israel and hatred of Obama, or is the answer to be found in the photo of hundreds of Republican loyalists who made a pilgrimage last March to the Las Vegas hotel-casino of Sheldon Adelson, a person known for his considerable influence within the Republican Party and the race for the White House? Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, four possible candidates for the Democratic 2016 election race, attended the event. Each of them was requested to describe to Adelson his views on a variety of issues, to verify if these align with his own.

In this respect we should note Adelson's own positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by which "the Palestinians are an invented people," and "the purpose of the existence of Palestinians is to destroy Israel." During a Washington conference of the American-Jewish community last November, Adelson said, “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy. … Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?”

Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary under George W. Bush who serves on the executive board of the Republican Jewish Coalition that organized the event, was quoted by The Washington Post as saying, “It goes without saying that anybody running for the Republican nomination would want to have Sheldon at his side.” Adelson is also the publisher of Yisrael Hayom, a newspaper closely connected to the prime minister and espousing the positions of the Israeli right.

Conservative lawmakers, not to mention evangelists, have every right to try to undermine peace efforts between Jews and Arabs. That is part of the democratic game. But the issue at stake here is turning the peace efforts and Israeli central matters into a weapon for the internal American political arena. The interference by American congressmen who enjoy close relations with tycoons in Israeli politics is more reminiscent of a plutocracy — a system in which power lies in the hands of tycoons who invest in politicians who promote their financial interests, and has absolutely nothing to do with friendship.

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