When the Obama administration wanted to be certain that Congress would not block $50 million in new aid to thePalestinian Authority last month, it turned to a singularly influential lobbyist: Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Representative Kay Granger has urged the Palestinians to resolve issues in direct talks.
At the request of the American Embassy and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Netanyahu urged dozens of members of Congress visiting Israel last month not to object to the aid, according to Congressional and diplomatic officials. Mr. Netanyahu’s intervention with Congress underscored an extraordinary intersection of American diplomacy and domestic politics, the result of an ever-tightening relationship between the Israeli government and the Republican Party that now controls the House.
On Tuesday, one of President Obama’s potential rivals in 2012, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, delivered a speech in New York criticizing Mr. Obama’s stance toward Israel as “naïve, arrogant, misguided and dangerous.” Mr. Perry said that he would be a guest soon of Danny Danon, the hard-right deputy speaker of the Israeli Parliament.
The relationship between the Israeli government and the Republican Party has significantly complicated the administration’s diplomatic efforts to avert a confrontation at the United Nations this week over the Palestinian bid for full membership as a state, limiting President Obama’s ability to exert pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to make concessions that could restart negotiations with the Palestinians.
One of the members of Congress who attended the meeting with Mr. Netanyahu in August, Representative Michael G. Grimm of New York, a Republican, said that it was carefully explained to the delegation that the money would be used for training Palestinian police officers who work closely with the Israeli government.
Mr. Grimm said he felt more comfortable receiving the explanation from the prime minister than from Obama administration officials.
“I think the credibility is different,” he said, “in the sense that this is his country and he certainly would not support something that would have negative effects within his country.”
For the Republicans, the relationship with the Israeli government has created what many see as an opportunity. Mindful of Mr. Obama’s strained relationship with Mr. Netanyahu and emboldened by a special election victory last week in a heavily Jewish Congressional district in New York, Republicans hope the tensions between Mr. Obama and Israel — underscored by the latest developments at the United Nations — will help propel future political victories for their party.
Even as Mrs. Clinton continued this week to pursue what she called “extremely intensive ongoing diplomacy” to find a compromise between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Republicans sought to leverage support among Jewish voters here at home who traditionally have favored Democrats.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has drawn up a list of several Democrat-rich Congressional districts — including one on Long Island now held by Representative Steve Israel, who leads a rival Democratic group — where it believes Republicans have a fighting chance by appealing to Jewish voters.
The House speaker, John A. Boehner, addressed a Jewish group in his home state, Ohio, last weekend, contrasting his invitation to Mr. Netanyahu to address Congress in May with the Israeli leader’s more frosty relationship with the administration; Mr. Boehner plans another speech this week to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington.
Unbending support for Israel has long been a bipartisan fact of American politics, but Mr. Netanyahu’s popularity in Congress now runs deeper than ever. When he appeared before Congress in the spring, his speech rebutting Mr. Obama’s ambitious peace proposals was interrupted by nearly three dozen standing ovations.
Mr. Netanyahu’s standing has complicated American diplomatic and financial support for the Palestinians as Mr. Obama tries to reach a peace between the two sides that would establish a Palestinian state, the stated goal of the last two presidential administrations.
As the Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations gained momentum this summer, both Republicans and Democrats warned that Congress would sever the American financial assistance that began under President George W. Bush if the Palestinians proceeded in that effort.
“The U.S. Congress has generously supported Palestinian efforts to build infrastructure and build the capacity of institutions in the past,” Representative Kay Granger of Texas, the Republican chairwoman of the House subcommittee overseeing foreign aid, and her Democratic counterpart, Representative Nita M. Lowey of New York, wrote in a letter to the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.
“However, American assistance has always been predicated upon Palestinian leaders’ commitment to resolve all outstanding issues through direct negotiations.”
Since 2007, the United States has spent $600 million a year supporting the Palestinians, training its security forces, providing direct budget assistance to the Palestinian coffers for essential services and delivering humanitarian assistance through nongovernmental organizations working in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel views the money as helping to foster stability by supporting Palestinian government services and professionalizing security forces. American aid, however, has come with restrictions and requires White House waivers and notifications to Congress.
One provision forbids aid to any terrorist group, raising questions about the future of financing after the announcement in April of a unity government between the Palestinians in the West Bank and Hamas, which controls Gaza and remains a designated terrorist organization. That reconciliation has not been taken place, however, averting at least for now a cutoff in aid.
The notifications required to Congress before releasing the aid give committee leaders the power to put holds on delivery of the aid — something the administration sought to avoid by urging Mr. Netanyahu to intervene to keep the money flowing last month. The $50 million was the last of $200 million this year in direct budget assistance to the Palestinians.
While the American aid to the Palestinians has been viewed with suspicion by some of Israel’s supporters, the Israeli government, especially through its security officials, has expressed support for it.
“Netanyahu made the pitch to members at the request of the secretary and embassy,” a Congressional official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private diplomatic discussions. That the financing request first had to pass muster with House Republicans — many of them backbenchers who were among the 81 members of Congress to visit Israel — demonstrates the power of that relationship.
Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the most powerful Jewish member of Congress, said the importance of the Israeli-American security connections was driven home during their August visit, during which a bus was bombed. “We saw U.S. taxpayer dollars in cooperation between American interest and Israeli interests toward the same end,” Mr. Cantor said.
“We’re in it together.”
“What you have on the Hill is a bipartisan demonstration for the U.S./Israeli relationship, and frankly I think it’s in contrast to the signals being sent from the White House,” he said. Mr. Cantor has written an op-ed article, which has yet to be published, with Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the minority whip, expressing their support for the nation.
Mr. Cantor also recalled the conversation concerning the $50 million, and the prime minister’s support for it, and said that further monies from Congress would be “colored greatly by the Palestinians’ actions at the U.N.”