How To Talk To Israel: A Sticking Point

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NOTE: Post updated 6/4/09 with material from President Obama's speech in Cairo.

In the last month, the debate over Israel policy has been a tale of two letters.

AIPAC and J Street--the two major rivals in the Israel lobbying scene--each circulated a letter in Congress in May, both addressed to President Obama, both urging support for Israel and a two-state peace solution with Palestinians. One garnered 328 signatures in the House; the other, 87.

While their differences on broad guidelines may not be great, they offered two different visions of how the U.S. should engage--and gave windows into the battle lines being drawn in Congress and what's at issue for both sides.

One big sticking point--only mentioned in one of the letters--was whether the U.S. and Israel should keep their disagreements private.

And speaking in Cairo Thursday morning, President Obama made it clear where he stands: that America should say publicly what it says to Israel in private, and that no special privacy arrangement should be extended to the U.S. ally.

With a two-week head start, AIPAC won the signature battle, garnering 328. AIPAC's letter went out first, originally dated May 1, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Minority Whip Eric Cantor as chief signatories. J Street's followed May 13, with Reps. Steve Cohen (D) and Charles Boustany (R) at the top of the list, garnering 87.

AIPAC has long dominated the Israel lobbying landscape, and from their massive amount of signatures, it's easy to see the group's sway. But J Street's 87 is not insignificant; it shows that the group has made inroads with some prominent members (Judiciary Chariman John Conyers, Ways and Means Chairman Charles Ranglel, Veterans Affairs Chairman Bob Filner, John Dingell, Barbara Lee) as well as a handful of freshmen (14 signers were elected in 2008).

Reading AIPAC's letter, it seems that even a liberally minded Israel observer would embrace AIPAC's broad goals: working closely with Israel, procuring a Palestinian promise to end violence, involving Arab neighbors, and letting the sides negotiate on their own.

J Street promoted those same goals, but with some key differences: it condemed new settlement construction and suggested building up Palestinian economy and security, before any solution is reached.

A big difference is how the groups want to approach Israel. AIPAC suggests that disagreements with Israel be kept private: "The proven best way forward is to work closely and privately together both on areas of agreement and especially on areas of disagreement," its letter reads. J Street's letter is silent on the matter.

That was a sticking point for Rep. Barney Frank, who sent his own letter to Obama Tuesday, endorsing all of AIPAC's goals except for that one.

"Given the fact that we are both democracies where public policy should ultimately set with the support of the people in each country, it would be a mistake to refuse to discuss important differences on how to achieve our mutual goals in a way that the electorates in both countries could understand," Frank wrote.

J Street sides with Frank, whom its PAC endorsed in 2008. In its view, Israel shouldn't get special treatment.

Evidently, President Obama does, too.

"America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs," Obama said Thursday in his address to the Muslim world--clearly siding against that part of the AIPAC letter.

Keeping disagreements with Israel private would undoubtedly further the U.S. image as an strong, some would say unconditional, backer of Israel--it would prevent Obama, for instance from publicly voicing concerns over settlements, as he has done of late.

In voicing those concerns, Obama has put pressure on Netanyahu's government. Citizens in Israel, the Arab world, and the U.S. now know what Obama thinks--for better or worse--and Muslim-world newspapers have displayed his dispute prominently, probably helping his standing in those countries--and probably rallying some sentiment against Netanyahu.

A public airing of disputes could cost Obama some support in the U.S., but it could also cost Netanyahu. It's a double-edged sword, and it would expose both parties' stances to the geopolitical winds.

Since Obama is in the middle of the dispute, his opinion can tip the scale--as we saw today, some Arab news outlets touted Obama's pending "clash" with Israel. If more disputes come out in public, the Arab world might celebrate that Obama is on its side, to Netanyahu's detriment at the bargaining table.

Liberal American supporters of Israel don't align themselves with Israel's conservatives, anyway. To them, it's about reaching a peace agreement, regardless of Israeli politics. Putting pressure on Israeli political factions, from a liberal standpoint, might be a good thing.

Thusfar, Obama has been candid about the settlements disagreement. We'll have to wait and see if the "clash" Arab news anticipates will happen, and whose advice--AIPAC's or Frank's--Obama heeds.

But from Thursday's speech, it appears he intends to keep things out in the open.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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