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Feinstein letter exposes divergent views on Israeli settlements

As the Obama administration prepares to receive the leaders of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the next two weeks, the White House is doing a lot of legwork to try to keep lines of communication with Jewish groups and lawmakers open, to build as much local support as possible for its approach to ...

As the Obama administration prepares to receive the leaders of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the next two weeks, the White House is doing a lot of legwork to try to keep lines of communication with Jewish groups and lawmakers open, to build as much local support as possible for its approach to ending the Middle East conflict.

But not all Jewish groups and lawmakers are on the same page. Most are uncomfortable with President Obama’s policy of placing pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and want to make sure that the administration’s efforts to bring the two parties to the negotiating table doesn’t come at the expense of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Other Jewish lawmakers openly support pressuring Netanyahu, and take a stance that diverges from the Israeli government’s approach to key issues. One of them is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, who is circulating a letter supporting the proximity talks around the Senate this week, obtained by The Cable.

The letter, addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hasn’t been sent and is still open for signatures. But a couple of its lines are already raising eyebrows in Senate offices on both sides of the aisle.

"We strongly believe that a permanent peace agreement … can only be achieved with the United States bringing the parties together and driving them to a settlement," the letter states (emphasis added).

Later on, it argues, "While the Israeli Government has announced a moratorium on settlement activity, for too long the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem undermined confidence."

The Netanyahu government vigorously disputes that building in East Jerusalem should be deemed as "settlement" activity. The approval of construction on 1,600 new residences in East Jerusalem during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden‘s visit to Israel is what kicked off the whole fracas between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations in the first place.

Senators including Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Lindsey Graham, R-SC, have been very vocal about their view that building in Jerusalem should not be considered "settlement" activity. Schumer even called the Obama approach to Netanyahu "counterproductive" before he backed off those comments.

Netanyahu is certain to be irked by the letter’s language. "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital," he told the recent AIPAC conference. "Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution."

Whether or not the U.S. should "drive" the two parties to make peace is another point of contention. The Palestinians see the proximity talks as a great way to keep the Obama administration actively involved, while the Israeli government and its supporters feel that although the U.S. has an important role to play, the Obama administration shouldn’t be pushing Netanyahu to do things he doesn’t want, or isn’t able, to do.

"It’s unclear what more Senator Feinstein wants to push Israel to do," said one GOP Senate aide. "At what point do we really want to force democracies to do things their people don’t support?"

"I can’t see how this letter is at all helpful for the administration or the peace process right now," said a Democratic Senate aide working on the issue, who feared the letter could damage whatever trust the administration has worked to rebuild with the Israelis over the past several weeks.

During the recent powwow between the president and 37 Jewish members of Congress, Feinstein was among the only members that expressed agreement with Obama’s view that confrontation with Netanyahu was the right approach, according to one Hill source who was briefed on the meeting.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, struck a different tone in a letter he sent to Clinton last month, when he said, "I hope that the Obama Administration will do everything possible to reduce recent tensions with Israel while reaffirming the need to move forward with the peace process."

As the Obama administration prepares to receive the leaders of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the next two weeks, the White House is doing a lot of legwork to try to keep lines of communication with Jewish groups and lawmakers open, to build as much local support as possible for its approach to ending the Middle East conflict.

But not all Jewish groups and lawmakers are on the same page. Most are uncomfortable with President Obama’s policy of placing pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and want to make sure that the administration’s efforts to bring the two parties to the negotiating table doesn’t come at the expense of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Other Jewish lawmakers openly support pressuring Netanyahu, and take a stance that diverges from the Israeli government’s approach to key issues. One of them is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, who is circulating a letter supporting the proximity talks around the Senate this week, obtained by The Cable.

The letter, addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hasn’t been sent and is still open for signatures. But a couple of its lines are already raising eyebrows in Senate offices on both sides of the aisle.

"We strongly believe that a permanent peace agreement … can only be achieved with the United States bringing the parties together and driving them to a settlement," the letter states (emphasis added).

Later on, it argues, "While the Israeli Government has announced a moratorium on settlement activity, for too long the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem undermined confidence."

The Netanyahu government vigorously disputes that building in East Jerusalem should be deemed as "settlement" activity. The approval of construction on 1,600 new residences in East Jerusalem during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden‘s visit to Israel is what kicked off the whole fracas between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations in the first place.

Senators including Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Lindsey Graham, R-SC, have been very vocal about their view that building in Jerusalem should not be considered "settlement" activity. Schumer even called the Obama approach to Netanyahu "counterproductive" before he backed off those comments.

Netanyahu is certain to be irked by the letter’s language. "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital," he told the recent AIPAC conference. "Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution."

Whether or not the U.S. should "drive" the two parties to make peace is another point of contention. The Palestinians see the proximity talks as a great way to keep the Obama administration actively involved, while the Israeli government and its supporters feel that although the U.S. has an important role to play, the Obama administration shouldn’t be pushing Netanyahu to do things he doesn’t want, or isn’t able, to do.

"It’s unclear what more Senator Feinstein wants to push Israel to do," said one GOP Senate aide. "At what point do we really want to force democracies to do things their people don’t support?"

"I can’t see how this letter is at all helpful for the administration or the peace process right now," said a Democratic Senate aide working on the issue, who feared the letter could damage whatever trust the administration has worked to rebuild with the Israelis over the past several weeks.

During the recent powwow between the president and 37 Jewish members of Congress, Feinstein was among the only members that expressed agreement with Obama’s view that confrontation with Netanyahu was the right approach, according to one Hill source who was briefed on the meeting.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, struck a different tone in a letter he sent to Clinton last month, when he said, "I hope that the Obama Administration will do everything possible to reduce recent tensions with Israel while reaffirming the need to move forward with the peace process."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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