Lawmakers urge Obama to mend fences with Netanyahu

Obama and Netanyahu during the U.S. president's visit in Israel, March 20, 2013. Photo by Bloomberg

Obama and Netanyahu during the U.S. president’s visit in Israel, March 20, 2013. Photo by Bloomberg

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are urging President Obama to mend fences with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The relationship between the two leaders has soured in the run-up to the prime minister’s election triumph this week. But members of Congress say it’s time to bury the hatchet.

A senior White House official on Wednesday congratulated “the Israeli people for the democratic process,” but Obama has yet to reach out to Netanyahu personally. Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry picked up the phone.

Lawmakers say Obama should do so himself.

“Now that he has been elected by the people in a free and fair election, the president should reach out to him. The president should say, ‘OK, there are too many issues that are important to us,’ ” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential race.

“I’ll bet you that the president doesn’t, just because of the way he has been behaving since the elections last November,” he added.

Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “My observation is that their disagreements are on policy as well as perhaps personality, and I would hope that both men would reach out to each other and work through it. … The U.S.-Israel relationship is more important than the relationship between any two individuals.”

“Now that the election is over, continuing to mend tensions in the U.S.-Israel relationship needs to be a priority for everyone, regardless of political affiliation,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. “I hope the new Israeli government can work toward that end.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that Obama will call Netanyahu “in coming days.”

Earnest noted that, in previous elections, Obama has waited until the prime minister formed a new coalition government.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is eyeing a presidential bid in 2016, said it “would be good for the president and prime minister to try to bury some animosities and move forward.”

The South Carolina Republican claimed that would be difficult because he believes the president’s team worked against Netanyahu’s reelection.

Jeremy Bird, Obama’s former field director, worked with Victory 15, a group allied with Israel’s Labor Party to defeat Netanyahu.

Congressional Republicans raised concerns over $350,000 in grants that an affiliated anti-Netanyahu group, OneVoice Movement, received from the State Department.

The Obama-Netanyahu relationship has grown increasingly acrimonious in the past several years.

Obama declined to sit down with the Israeli leader when he was in D.C. in early March, because Obama has a “general policy” not to meet with any world leader within weeks of an election. The White House and some congressional Democrats were furious after learning Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had invited Netanyahu to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress. Boehner did not inform Obama or Democrats about the invitation.

As a result, Vice President Biden and dozens of Democratic lawmakers boycotted Netanyahu’s address.

Many in Washington and beyond say the Obama-Netanyahu discord has become personal, but it did start with conflicting policy views.

The two leaders have different positions on how to pursue peace negotiations with Palestinians and prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Their relationship hit a low point in March of 2010, when Obama interrupted negotiations and left the Israeli leader cooling his heels in a White House waiting room while he had dinner with the first lady, according to news reports at the time.

The White House later disputed those reports by asserting Michelle Obama was in New York that evening.

The alleged snub was seen as payback for Netanyahu’s approval of a controversial Jewish construction project in East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu poked Obama earlier this week, when he declared just before the Israeli elections that he no longer supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a goal that has long served as the basis of American-brokered peace talks.

White House officials complained about Netanyahu’s “divisive rhetoric” during his campaign.

Republicans claimed a measure of victory Wednesday by arguing Netanyahu’s win gave momentum to their push to scrutinize Obama’s talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

Netanyahu delivered a scathing critique of Obama’s diplomatic efforts, when he spoke to a joint session of Congress on March 3, saying they would leave Iran with a vast nuclear program and lift restrictions on it after 10 years.

“It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb,” Netanyahu said.

GOP lawmakers say the elections show a majority of Israelis share these concerns.

“It does firm up the position of those of us who believe the president is heading toward a bad deal,” said Rep. Pete King (N.Y.), a leading Republican voice on security policy who might launch a 2016 presidential bid.

“It’s a momentum builder for the idea that [Netanyahu’s] view of security won the day in Israel,” said Graham.

By The Hill