WASHINGTON – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a warmer public reception from Congress than from the Obama administration, with a top Democrat and Republican joining Tuesday to praise a leader who has refused to back down in a disagreement the White House says threatens new peace talks.
President Obama met with Netanyahu late in the day, but in a break with custom reporters were not permitted to see the leaders shake hands and begin their discussions. Their talks came after two weeks of sharp criticism from the White House about its closest ally in the Mideast. Obama has remained out of the fray until now.
The bipartisan welcome by lawmakers underscored the breadth of congressional support for Israel even when the White House wants to demonstrate its displeasure. And it pointed to the limited options, beyond verbal rebukes, that the Obama administration faces in pressuring the Jewish state.
We in Congress stand by Israel, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., assured Netanyahu at an all-smiles appearance before the cameras. In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel.
At issue is Israels announcement that it will build 1,600 new apartments in east Jerusalem, the largely Arab section of the disputed holy city. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state and have held up new U.S.-sponsored peace talks over what they say is an Israeli land grab.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton greeted Netanyahu this week with a polite scolding. Expansionist Israeli housing policies erode trust and the U.S. position as an honest broker, she said. Netanyahus public reply came quickly: Jews have built their homes in Jerusalem for centuries and will continue, he told a pro-Israel audience.
U.S. Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell spent Sunday and Monday shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian officials. He returned to Washington for meetings on Tuesday but appeared to have made little headway with the Palestinians. The State Department said the administration had seen progress from Mitchells discussion but gave no dates for the start of a new round of talks with Mitchell as go-between.
P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said the U.S. and Israel are engaged in give and take.
We are not going to talk about the precise steps both sides have to take. We will continue to discuss those steps privately, Crowley said.
Both nations are trying to move on without backing down. But on Capitol Hill, lawmakers lavished praise on Israel.
We have no stronger ally anywhere in the world than Israel, said House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. We all know were in a difficult moment. Im glad the prime minister is here so we can have an open dialogue.
Other Republicans have weighed in for Israel, criticizing the Obama administration for its handling of the crisis.
I never thought Id live to see the day that an American administration would denounce the state of Israel for rebuilding Jerusalem, Rep. Mike Pence, R-6th, said on the House floor Tuesday after meeting Netanyahu. I urge the president to stop all this talk about settlements in Jerusalem and start focusing on isolating a threatening and menacing and rising nuclear Iran.