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Lesson to the "Pro-Israel" Right: Be Careful What You Ask From Congress

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Israeli diplomats, AIPAC, and other groups on the American Jewish and Christian right are learning a tough lesson today: Be careful what you tell Congress to do on Israel, because it might come back to bite you.

For months they have been whipping Congress into a state of hysteria over the Palestinian plan to go to the UN. They mustered bipartisan near-unanimity around the proposition that if the Palestinians didn't back off, U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) would be cut off -- a message formalized in House and Senate resolution, in letters from House appropriators, in the FY12 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill and in statements delivered by members.

But a House hearing last week on aid to the Palestinians highlighted the growing realization of what cutting off aid to the PA would mean for Israel: an end to security cooperation that has allowed Israel to enjoy historically low levels of violence and the collapse of the PA.

Veteran Israel hardliner and neocon Eliot Abrams told the committee that he was not in favor of cutting aid to the PA. David Makovsky of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy -- a think tank closely aligned with AIPAC -- argued that the group that would gain the most from a cut off of aid to the PA would be Hamas. Jonathan Schanzer from the neocon Foundation for the Defense of Democracy suggested that the impact of cutting aid would be "devastating." Shortly thereafter, news broke that Israel is calling for the international community to continue aid to the Palestinians, as made explicit in an Israeli report presented at a donors conference at the UN on September 18, which stated, "Israel calls for ongoing international support for the PA budget and development projects..."

Will Congress now re-think and retract its threat to cut off aid to the PA? Perhaps, but only if the government of Israel, AIPAC, et al give members of Congress the necessary political cover.

These are difficult times for members of Congress who genuinely care about Israel -- because more than at any time in the past, Israel has been turned into a partisan football. House Republicans, egged on not only by AIPAC, but by the likes of ECI , the RJC, the ZOA, and CUFI, have eagerly seized any pretext to attack the president and Democrats for not being "pro-Israel" enough -- often endorsing positions that are extreme even by Israeli standards. This tendency was on display with Rep. Walsh's (Tea Party-IL) recent introduction of a resolution endorsing Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

Many Democrats have played the same game, tacking ever-further to the right to prove that they are no less "pro-Israel" than their Republican counterparts -- even at the expense of President Obama's peace efforts (and Israel's best interests). This phenomenon was on stark display with Rep. Israel's (D-NY) introduction of a bill seeking to cut off military aid to any country that votes for a Palestinian initiative at the UN.

The government of Israel, AIPAC, et al have recklessly encouraged this trend, heedless of the danger posed by a Congress whose members are more interested in outflanking each other with dogmatically hawkish positions than they are in what is genuinely good for Israel (and the United States).

With the issue so politicized, the normal exit strategies are not available. In the past, Congress might have passed the buck to the president, passing legislation cutting off aid to the Palestinians, but giving the president waiver authority. Such a scenario seems unlikely today. Republicans in this Congress have shown an unwillingness to give the president unfettered waiver authority when it comes to Middle East aid. Given their fervor for cutting funding for pretty much everything (except Israel), getting GOP members, and particularly Israel's new best friends in the Tea Party, to support a waiver could prove difficult.

Democrats in Congress would (correctly) view a waiver-based solution as a trap. Republicans in Congress would claim tough pro-Israel credentials for imposing sanctions, and then paint the president -- and Democrats in general -- as not "pro-Israel" if the president were to exercise the waiver. As we enter an election year, it seems unlikely that Democrats would allow this to happen.

Which takes us back to today's lesson for the government of Israel and AIPAC, et al. They are the ones who pushed Congress to climb this "pro-Israel-means-cutting-Palestinian-aid" tree. Now, if they truly care about Israel and not just about partisan game-playing on the issue, they will have to provide a ladder for Congress to climb down.