McCain & Lieberman Undermine U.S. Policy While In Israel

January 11, 2010 1:42 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

What happened to the idea that it was inappropriate for American Members of Congress to go abroad and publicly endorse a foreign government's policy over that of their own government?  Apparently, it died.

Last week, the Israeli media reported that the Obama administration was considering using very mild economic sanctions to push Israel toward accepting a full settlement freeze, which the President has repeatedly asked for, only to be rebuffed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

In fact, Netanyahu dissed Obama so completely, and with such exuberance, that it would be astonishing if the administration had not considered using its powerful economic leverage on Israel to achieve a settlement freeze and get negotiations going. (Israel is, by far, the largest recipient of US aid)

Nonetheless, the administration's Special Envoy, George Mitchell, denied that Obama was considering economic pressure, which was probably wise given the brouhaha the lobby would launch among its Capitol Hill acolytes. (If the administration does decide to use any form of economic pressure, it should simply tell the Israelis and let them decide what they want to do, not give advance warning through the media)

In any case, it didn't seem to matter to Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, who were visiting Israel, that the administration said it would not be putting the heat on.  They felt the need to rush to the cameras anyway to tell Israelis, and the lobby back home, that, if the President pushes the Prime Minister, they will stand with the Prime Minister.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Lieberman said that "any attempt to pressure Israel, to force Israel to the negotiating table by denying Israel support, will not pass the Congress of the United States. In fact, the Congress will stop any attempt to do that."

McCain said he agreed with Lieberman. Congressman Anthony Weiner, on a separate visit to Israel, said that rather than reduce aid to Israel, he would cut off aid to the Palestinians. Why? Well why not? He was speaking in Israel, after all.

Of course, neither Lieberman nor Weiner nor even the more influential McCain could stop a President of the United States if he decided to put some settlement freeze strings on our foreign aid to Israel.  That is, after all, standard practice with foreign aid recipients and if the goal is getting the two sides to peace talks, the American people (and Congress) would support their President.

Besides, no one suggested an aid slash, simply the withholding of loan guarantees.  That is precisely the tactic the first President Bush used to protest settlement expansion 18 years ago.  His action infuriated the lobby and some members of Congress, but Bush achieved what he wanted.

The Israeli government fell and the inflexible Yitzhak Shamir was replaced by Yitzhak Rabin, who simultaneously repaired relations with the United States and initiated the peace process.

That is not the point though.  No matter what these legislators think of their own government's policy toward Israel, they should not openly take the Israeli side while in Israel. Back in the 1980's, pro-Israel Americans were infuriated when accused of choosing "Begin over Reagan." But here we have Members of Congress proudly touting their support for Netanyahu over Obama - in Israel, no less.

Now comes the really ironic part.

On Sunday, in an interview with John King on CNN, McCain asserted that advancing the peace process could only benefit US policies vis a vis Iran.

McCain predicted that the Iranian "regime's days are numbered." But he expressed the fear that it would use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to save itself.

That is because the Iranian opposition - like regime supporters - is pained by Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and might rally behind the government if the regime successfully turns attention toward that front. McCain concluded, "that argues for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks."

King then asked McCain, "Do you think [Israel and Palestine are] at a point that, if you can get them in a room, they can get this done in a year or two?"

McCain said, "I do. I do. And I think that there is a heightened understanding that, with other tensions in the region, and I just mentioned Iran....that there's a certain urgency to the peace process. And I believe that not only is it possible but I think it's very likely you could see some progress in this area."

Lieberman, no surprise, said nothing on that point.

But McCain had it exactly right.  Continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hurts all of America's interests in the Middle East including, right at the top, our chances of successfully containing any threat emanating from Iran.

Accordingly, going to Israel to express solidarity with the Israeli government in its resistance to U.S. mediation is not only offensive, it harms U.S. interests.  And Israel's too.  After all, Israel, much more than us, would feel threatened by an Iranian nuclear arsenal. 

It's time for legislators to stop pandering to a lobby and do what they know is right. McCain made clear that he indeed does know what America should do.  The problem is that he, like Lieberman, would rather pander than support a President who is trying to do it.