The Cable

Feinstein letter exposes divergent views on Israeli settlements

As the Obama administration prepares to receive the leaders of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the next two weeks, the White House is doing a lot of legwork to try to keep lines of communication with Jewish groups and lawmakers open, to build as much local support as possible for its approach to ending the Middle East conflict.

But not all Jewish groups and lawmakers are on the same page. Most are uncomfortable with President Obama's policy of placing pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and want to make sure that the administration's efforts to bring the two parties to the negotiating table doesn't come at the expense of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Other Jewish lawmakers openly support pressuring Netanyahu, and take a stance that diverges from the Israeli government's approach to key issues. One of them is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, who is circulating a letter supporting the proximity talks around the Senate this week, obtained by The Cable.

The letter, addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hasn't been sent and is still open for signatures. But a couple of its lines are already raising eyebrows in Senate offices on both sides of the aisle.

"We strongly believe that a permanent peace agreement ... can only be achieved with the United States bringing the parties together and driving them to a settlement," the letter states (emphasis added).

Later on, it argues, "While the Israeli Government has announced a moratorium on settlement activity, for too long the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem undermined confidence."

The Netanyahu government vigorously disputes that building in East Jerusalem should be deemed as "settlement" activity. The approval of construction on 1,600 new residences in East Jerusalem during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel is what kicked off the whole fracas between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations in the first place.

Senators including Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Lindsey Graham, R-SC, have been very vocal about their view that building in Jerusalem should not be considered "settlement" activity. Schumer even called the Obama approach to Netanyahu "counterproductive" before he backed off those comments.

Netanyahu is certain to be irked by the letter's language. "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital," he told the recent AIPAC conference. "Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution."

Whether or not the U.S. should "drive" the two parties to make peace is another point of contention. The Palestinians see the proximity talks as a great way to keep the Obama administration actively involved, while the Israeli government and its supporters feel that although the U.S. has an important role to play, the Obama administration shouldn't be pushing Netanyahu to do things he doesn't want, or isn't able, to do.

"It's unclear what more Senator Feinstein wants to push Israel to do," said one GOP Senate aide. "At what point do we really want to force democracies to do things their people don't support?"

"I can't see how this letter is at all helpful for the administration or the peace process right now," said a Democratic Senate aide working on the issue, who feared the letter could damage whatever trust the administration has worked to rebuild with the Israelis over the past several weeks.

During the recent powwow between the president and 37 Jewish members of Congress, Feinstein was among the only members that expressed agreement with Obama's view that confrontation with Netanyahu was the right approach, according to one Hill source who was briefed on the meeting.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, struck a different tone in a letter he sent to Clinton last month, when he said, "I hope that the Obama Administration will do everything possible to reduce recent tensions with Israel while reaffirming the need to move forward with the peace process."

The Cable

Obama administration joins UN group to heal Muslim-Western ties

The Obama administration is not just talking about reinvigorating America's participation in international organizations; it's actually doing it. This week marks the latest in a series of international events that will see full State Department participation for the first time.

Assistant Secretary for International Organizations Esther Brimmer is in Rio this week leading the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Forum, which includes about 2,000 participants from about 119 countries and organizations. As of 2010, the United States is now a full member country, and while U.S. officials had participated in selected events relating to the organization before, Brimmer's involvement is meant to show a renewed U.S. commitment to international institutions.

 "The alliance itself is essentially a clearinghouse for information on cultural exchange, and we were particularly interested because we thought that it was developing in a way that was showing some innovation in terms of broadening out cultural exchange and trying to counter some of the forces of polarization and extremism," Brimmer told The Cable.

The AOC forum began in 2005 as a Spanish/Turkish attempt to respond to serious ongoing problems in relations between the Muslim world and the West, as illustrated by riots over cartoon portrayals of the Prophet Mohammed that year.

The U.N.'s then secretary-general, Kofi Annan, appointed a high-profile group of international luminaries to get it started, including former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and South African Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

But the group's 2006 report created controversy when it made several recommendations that touched upon the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"Our emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not meant to imply that it is the overt cause of all tensions between Muslim and Western societies," the report's authors wrote. "Nevertheless, it is our view that the Israeli-Palestinian issue has taken on a symbolic value that colors cross cultural and political relations ... well beyond its limited geographic scope."

U.S. conservatives were up in arms.

"The Report of the High-level Group of The Alliance of Civilizations is testament to the limited value of such exercises by the U.N. The report focuses obsessively on the failings of Western countries while largely ignoring the faults of Muslim countries," wrote the Heritage Foundation's Brett Shaefer at the time. "The report glosses over the underlying reasons behind the economic problems of many Islamic countries in favor of a laundry list of objectives."

But Brimmer said the AOC has now changed and expanded its focus, partnering with UNESCO and the German Marshall Fund.For example, the AOC and GMF established an international fellowship program in 2009 to bring together youth from America, Europe, and Muslim countries. Also, the State Department's office dealing with UNESCO is now involved in the AOC effort.

 "The AOC itself was really expanding to try to take, on in a more structured way, working on countering extremism and supporting cultural exchange," said Brimmer, adding that the State Department is in "listening mode" and still thinking about where and how exactly to get involved.

That, in and of itself, is a shift from the Bush years. Let's not forget that it was one of her predecessors, John Bolton, who famously said about the U.N., "If it lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

"I think for this administration multilateral diplomacy is an integral part of overall U.S foreign policy," Brimmer said, "But that means being active in those bodies -- attending meetings, going to conferences, talking to the delegations, and we try to support that."