WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israeli settler leader Dani Dayan has made it his mission over the years to warn members of Congress, particularly Republicans, of the perils of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Dayan has been a regular visitor to Washington, his trips often coinciding with developments in the peace process. During the Annapolis talks in 2007-08, Dayan would watch Israeli officials as they met with the media in the lobby of the venerable Mayflower Hotel, just blocks from the White House, and then move in to offer his own spin.
In June, Dayan met with GOP House leaders in a meeting organized with help from the Zionist Organization of America. The meeting was followed by a Washington Jewish Week report that another settler leader, Gershon Mesika, met with 20 Congress members just days before the relaunch of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
The intensive cultivation of relationships on Capitol Hill appears to be bearing fruit.
Within days of talks kicking off in Washington last week, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a freshman who attended the June meeting with Dayan, drafted a letter asking the U.S. attorney general to hinder the release of Palestinian prisoners — a move approved by Israel to help kick-start negotiations.
Dayan didn’t ask Salmon to write the letter. That request was made by the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a conservative lobby funded in part by gaming billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
But the congressional measures now being undertaken to impact the trajectory of peace talks have their roots in the warm relations that settlers and their American friends have forged in Congress over the past two decades.
“It was important to meet with the Yesha people,” a GOP official said of the June meeting, using the Hebrew acronym for the settlers’ council, “to find out who the settlers are, what they feel obstacles to peace are, what Judea and Samaria means from a historical perspective.”
In addition to Salmon’s letter, a perennial effort to tighten a 1995 law requiring the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem reappeared just as talks resumed. The strengthened law would remove a presidential waiver that has enabled successive presidents to delay the move on the grounds of national security.
Members of Congress behind both initiatives deny that the measures — neither in timing nor in substance — are intended to scuttle the peace talks. On the contrary, the lawmakers say they are intended to improve the chances of success for the talks by strengthening Israel’s bargaining position and making American parameters clear to the Palestinians.
“There will never be clear sailing as long as there are people who do not recognize Israel as a Jewish nation,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), one of the sponsors of the new Jerusalem bill.
But the settler leaders and the right-wing pro-Israel groups that support them are more blunt about their objectives.
“I told the congresspersons that the strategic choice that John Kerry made to go on with the conventional peace process to try to renew negotiations … will have catastrophic consequences for the American national interests,” Dayan said. “Because when he fails — and he will fail — the fact that the secretary of state of the United States failed will be noticed very clearly in Tehran and in Damascus and in Moscow and in Pyongyang.”
Daniel Mandel, the director of ZOA’s Center for Middle East Policy, said his group was gearing up to push back against talks it believes are doomed because the Palestinians remain unwilling to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
“Our strategy now that negotiations have resumed is to unblinkingly focus on the unregenerative nature of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority,” Mandel said, referring to Mahmoud Abbas, the P.A. president.
Efforts to exert congressional pressure to affect the outcome of peace talks are not new.
Following the launch of the Oslo peace process in the early 1990s, right-wing Israelis and their allies helped pass a congressional bill that would move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move that would buttress Israeli claims to the city whose ultimate fate was to be determined by Israelis and Palestinians.
A separate bill sought to prevent U.S. troops from patroling the Golan Heights to help cement a peace deal with Syria. Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli prime minister, expressed his frustration at both moves.
Back then, the right-wingers had mainstream allies; the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbied for the Jerusalem law. AIPAC did not respond to requests for comment on the new Jerusalem bill, which is backed by the ZOA.
Republican House officials say their members are deeply skeptical about the renewed talks, which were launched after an intensive round of shuttle diplomacy by Kerry. Sensitive to Republican mistrust of President Obama’s foreign policy agenda, Dayan said he attempted to persuade House leaders that the peace process would harm U.S. interests.
“I would like Congress to explain to the State Department that this is a morally improper way to conduct diplomacy,” Dayan in an interview this week.
Sarah Stern, the director of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, said her primary concern was for the families of those killed by the released prisoners, but she acknowledged there was a dividend in alerting Americans to the dangers of the peace process.
“I can’t petition the Israeli government as an American citizen, I can only petition our officials,” Stern said. “But as a sidebar, it’s painful to see Israel has to go through so much just to get the Palestinians to sit down, and it’s a very sad thing that Israel has been subject to so much pressure by Kerry.”