Martin Indyk
Martin Indyk Photo by Nir Kafri
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As U.S. and Israeli leaders try to improve relations between the two countries following another diplomatic crisis, U.S. lawmakers on Thursday debated the best way to keep Israel safe in its turbulent region.

At a hearing of the House of Representatives subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, titled "Safeguarding Israel's Security in a Volatile Region," concerns were raised over the potentially detrimental effects of the public rift between the Obama administration and Netanyahu's government.

Chairman of the committee, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), expressed his growing concern about the future of the U.S.-Israel security relationship, citing the administration's "clumsy response to the Palestinian attempt for statehood recognition last September at the UN" and "the most recent dust-ups concerning the status of Jerusalem in President Obama's campaign platform" as well as Obama's unwillingness to meet with Netanyahu next week on the margins of United Nations General Assembly, though the White House rejected these claims saying such a meeting was impossible due to scheduling conflicts.

"I fear we are sending conflicting messages, both to our friend and those of Israel's enemies who may question our resolve," Rep. Chabot said. "And I think that would be unfortunate and potentially dangerous."

New York representative Gary Ackerman lamented that Israel has become a wedge issue in U.S. politics. Ackerman expressed concern that American opinions that diverge from the current Israeli government’s position are viewed as anti-Israel, even if they fit within the spectrum of Israel’s own Zionist parties.

“If unchecked, I fear these smear campaigns will not take long to poison the well of bipartisan support that Israel has justifiably and critically relied upon," he said.

Ackerman also warned of the consequences of continued stagnation on the peacemaking front. "For purely self-interested reasons Israel needs to separate itself from the Palestinians and to normalize its relations with the Arab states," he said. "Time might not be exactly right today, but I know if you wait long enough anything that's ripe will get rotten."

Ackerman called for clarity in discussions regarding the Iranian nuclear program. "We have to stop playing with euphemisms and magical thinking," he said. "Trivializing the term 'unacceptable' has to stop. When the president says that it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, what we are talking about, provided he's not bluffing and the Iranians do not change course, is sending our armed forces into Iran to attack and destroy key facilities, materials and capabilities.

"There is a name for such a thing; it's called war," he said, "and we need to honestly face up to what it could cost us in lives, chaos and cash because that's what averting the 'unacceptable' may require. Anyone who supposes that a strike on Iran will be surgical or a brief episode without severe consequences is delusional."

Elliott Abrams, an official in George W. Bush's administration and currently a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, presented testimony highly critical of the Obama administration's policies. While admitting that the U.S.-Israel military and intelligence cooperation is "in very good shape," he went on to say that "our political relationship and cooperation are worse than they have been for many years, perhaps for two decades."

"This political distancing from Israel is a deliberate policy on the part of the administration which thought that the Bush Administration had gotten too close," he added. "But in the Middle East that distance is perceived as a source of Israeli weakness."

Abrams lashed out at the U.S. military top brass for their part in trying to "diminish and undercut the Israeli military threat against Iran."

"Senior officials such as Sec. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey have repeatedly made statements that suggest Israel has little capacity to damage Iran’s program,"said Abrams. "In addition there is Gen. Dempsey’s recent remark that he did not want to be 'complicit' in any Israeli action. I am at a loss to understand why it is useful to say these things publicly, because to me, they seem to tell Iran its program can go forward with no current risk."

Martin Indyk, Vice President and Director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said that Israel "has very good reasons to be concerned" about the developments in the region, and that without a meaningful peace process, the return of the Palestinian issue back on top of the Arab agenda "can dramatically worsen Israel's strategic circumstances."

Despite these dire warnings, he concluded on a positive note.

"Israel is no longer a weak and isolated state incapable of defending itself," Indyk said. "And with wise leadership and the steadfast support of the United States, it has every reason to be confident that it will be able to effectively navigate the treacherous waters in which it now finds itself."

While the Obama administration, including the president himself, rejected Netanyahu's call to spell out clear "red lines" on Iran, several senators reintroduced a resolution rejecting "any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran" and signaling support for the military option, should other means to stop Teheran's nuclear program fail.

On Thursday night, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who spent all day campaigning in Florida, also took time to participate in a conference call with Jewish American leaders, offering holiday greetings and answering questions. He hinted that it took the Obama administration too long to implement harsh sanctions on Iran, but he did not mention the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in his remarks.