Foreign Policy Moves to Center Stage as McDonough Addresses Jewish Conference

How will the current U.S.-Israeli tensions affect the 2016 presidential race?

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough's Monday address to the annual J Street convention, a major gathering of liberal-leaning Jewish Americans, follows a month of political developments that aggravated relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama and threatened longstanding U.S.-Israel policy.

What’s not yet clear is the impact those developments will have on 2016 U.S. presidential politics. Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, who was invited to the conference but is not slated to attend, may face pressure to stake out a more muscular pro-Israel position or risk losing significant support to Republicans, who are embracing Netanyahu and his policies.

“I do anticipate that this will be the subject of some debate in a political context, and I think that’s an appropriate thing to happen,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest, while emphasizing that Obama’s priority is protecting U.S. national security. 

The past month has seen Netanyahu irritate Obama by accepting a Republican invitation to address Congress just weeks before the Israeli elections and ahead of a deadline on the Iran nuclear negotiations that the prime minister opposes. Then came Netanyahu’s declaration just before the vote that a Palestinian state wouldn’t happen on his watch, only to reverse course after his victory to say that he still supports the goal of a two-state solution that’s long been the basis of peace talks.

Now Obama, while maintaining that the U.S. remains committed to Israel, says Netanyahu's actions leave him no choice but to re-evaluate the U.S. approach to Israel. That could include a re-evaluation of the U.S. practice of supporting Israel before the United Nations Security Council. 

In an interview with the Huffington Post published on Saturday, Obama said a two-state solution is “the only way for the long-term security of Israel, if it wants to stay both a Jewish state and democratic.” He added that given Netanyahu’s statements before the election, “it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible.” And he raised another hot-button issue, warning that the U.S. can’t support perpetual expansion of Israeli settlements.

Amid all that, the president's chief of staff will keynote the annual conference of J Street, which strongly supports a Palestinian state as a base component in peace talks as well as the ongoing Iran nuclear negotiations.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's founder and president, acknowledged that the current tensions are “really going to be front and center” on a lot of Jewish-Americans' minds. But he argued "a lot of American Jews who care deeply about Israel have been absolutely disgusted by the way Republicans have tried to turn this issue into a partisan wedge,” he said.

Republicans have for years sought to gain ground with Jewish voters by portraying Democrats as weak on support for Israel’s security. “It's never worked, election after election,” Ben-Ami said, noting Jewish voters' historic preference for Democrats. “This is the equivalent of Charlie Brown and the football, of Lucy putting down the football.”

Nonetheless, several possible Republican presidential candidates have been congratulating Netanyahu on his win while criticizing Obama’s approach.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Saturday that he had spoken with Netanyahu and assured him of shared concerns about any Iran nuclear deal or Palestinian efforts to join the International Criminal Court. "I let the prime minister know that there were many in the Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, who have Israel's back," Graham said in a statement.

Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, told CNN Monday that it's “dangerous” to use U.S.-Israel ties as a “political football.”

“I don’t believe Israel should be used as an electoral tool,” said Israel, the former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I don’t believe it should be used for partisan gain by either party. We support Israel because it is fundamentally important to the United States.”

Jewish-Americans comprise about 2 percent of the U.S. population and include 4 million people of voting age, Ben-Ami said, who tend, overall, to hold moderate views on Israel, overwhelmingly backing a two-state solution and with strong majorities that oppose some or all growth of Israeli settlements and a limited enrichment program in Iran for civilian purposes.

“It's very important to conceptualize this as a three-part debate,” Ben-Ami said. “You have a very hard-left position that's increasingly being heard in some elements of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and that's a sort of pro-Palestinian more anti-Israel voice. You have a far-right set of views. And then you have a middle ground where you're pro-Israel, pro-creation of a Palestinian state and pro a solution that ends this conflict. That's a very safe middle ground."

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