Congress Doesn’t Trust Obama - and Israel Is Paying the Price

The bill confirming Israel as a 'major strategic partner’ of America has been yanked from the Senate agenda, scuppered by the poor faith between Obama and Congress.

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U.S. Senators Robert Menendez and Bob Corker, Washington, March 27, 2014.Credit: Reuters

With each passing week it becomes more evident that with respect to Israel, the Congress of the United States doesn’t trust President Obama. What else is one to make of the decision of the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez, to remove from the Senate agenda what the papers are calling a “key piece of pro-Israel legislation” because it could have pit Democrats against the White House on the subject of Iran?

It’s not my purpose here to sort out the question of whether the Congress should trust Obama. The President, after all, is not without his standing, having twice won the highest office in the land. It was not Congress but the people who created the branch of government that Obama heads, the presidency he holds. But whether or not Congress should trust the president, it is becoming increasingly clear that it doesn’t. It’s a remarkable situation.

Feature the legislation that Chairman Menendez pulled. It’s called the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act. Its primary sponsor is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, or, as I like to call her, Ileana the Magnificent. She’s the Florida Republican who represents the faction in Congress that is not going to compromise on the embargo of Cuba until the reasons for the embargo — stolen property and freedom — are redeemed.

It was Ros-Lehtinen who got Prime Minister Netanyahu to telephone her with an apology after he briefly fell for Fidel Castro’s feigned change of heart on Israel. That was after Jeffrey Goldberg’s famous interview with the doddering communist dictator. There is, in any event, no one who doesn’t trust Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and she’s all over the Israel beat. She’s had this Strategic Partnership Act before the Congress for more than a year.

What the bill would do is set up more attentive oversight of the administration than had already been written into law. It would declare as a matter of policy that Israel is a “major strategic partner” of America, and tinker with existing laws in a variety of pro-Israel ways. It easily passed the House on a bipartisan vote. Until the latest dust-up, a legislation tracking Web site known as was giving the measure a 42% chance of becoming law.

Senator Menendez is worried about an amendment being readied by the Republican minority leader on the foreign relations committee, Senator Robert Corker of Tennessee. He wants language that would require any deal hatched with Iran at Geneva be submitted to Congress within three days so that the legislature can express its approval. Not that, in sharp contradistinction to a proper treaty, Congress isn’t asking to block such a deal. Just express itself on it.

Are Iran sanctions germane to a U.S. Israel Strategic Partnership bill? My own view is that’s beside the point. Corker could have, theoretically, offered his amendment to the agriculture bill or the school lunch program. The real issue is a lack of trust in the administration’s negotiations. It involves oversight of talks related to a nuclear weapons the Iranians want to use against, among others, Israel. Hence the logic of coming in on the Israel partnership measure.

This is too much for the Democratic leadership. It’s not the pro-Israel Republicans they fear. It’s the pro-Israel Democrats. Or, as Foreign Policy magazine’s website put it, a Corker amendment would have set up “a difficult vote that would have forced Democrats to choose sides between the White House and members of the pro-Israel community.” Rather than risk such a choice, the Democrats have yanked a pro-Israel bill from the table.

The White House is furious, as usual, and the Left is crying politics. The problem is that the distrust of the White House has been evinced on both sides of the aisle, and the White House itself is acknowledging the constitutional contest; it is claiming that the Corker Amendment would represent an intrusion on the constitutional separation of power between the Congress and the President. This struggle has flared in and out of election years.

It would be inaccurate to suggest that Senator Menendez lacks for ardor in his support for the Jewish State. He sponsored Menendez-Kirk, the bill that would have set up an automatic process for restoring or even expanding sanctions in Iran if Tehran fails to live up to any agreement. He doesn’t trust the administration any more than Senator Corker does yet he daren’t go to the mat. What in the world will the Mullahs make of this?

This is yet another glimpse of the most dangerous ground in the Middle East — that between the White House and the Congress. It is something to understand during the run up to an election in which control of the Senate is in the balance. There is a huge stake in this election for all who cherish the America-Israel strategic partnership, all the more so when a simple bill to strengthen and name that partnership can’t even be brought to the floor.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.