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August 31, 2015

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Letter from Washington:

Berkley finds herself stuck between Obama and Netanyahu

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Steve Marcus

U.S. Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., holds a news conference in the Palo Verde High School parking lot before a rally for Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan at the school Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012. Berkley is running for U.S. Senate against Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.

The spate of protests around the Muslim world over a rough and rudimentary film ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad have overshadowed another mounting international crisis that this week began to put some U.S. lawmakers in an awkward position.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been leaning harder and harder on President Barack Obama to take a tougher stance on a nuclearizing Iran. Netanyahu has increasingly interjected his assessments of the president’s performance as Iran becomes a hotly debated issue between Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, on the campaign trail.

In the past week, Netanyahu demanded Obama draw a “red line” on Iran and helped fuel a rumor that the White House intentionally turned down a visit with him later this month when heads of state meet at the United Nations General Assembly. (The White House has denied that any such request was made.)

The political haymaking from Israel’s premier has pushed some Democrats to draw a line in the sand of their own.

“I am stunned by the remarks that you made this week regarding U.S. support for Israel,” California Sen. Barbara Boxer wrote in a letter to Netanyahu this week. “Are you suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not stand by Israel? Are you saying that Israel, under President Obama, has not received more in annual security assistance from the United States than at any time in its history?”

While Boxer’s spirited defense of Obama made headlines, it also highlighted the relative silence coming from other Jewish Democrats in Congress with strong records on Israel, who are doing all they can to avoid taking sides — even as prominent Israelis accuse Netanyahu of taking sides against Obama in the U.S. elections.

Nevada’s Rep. Shelley Berkley falls into that category.

“I am confident that the relationship between the United States and Israel remains as strong as ever,” Berkley said in a statement to the Sun last week, when asked about the tension between Netanyahu and Obama.

Berkley struck a vastly different tone from Boxer, describing herself as “sympathetic to the immense pressure facing Prime Minister Netanyahu as he works to keep Israel safe.”

“But I also know that President Obama is a strong supporter of Israel, is committed to security in the region and will continue working to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Berkley added in the statement.

Berkley, like many other Democrats, lays claim to the strongest pro-Israel bona fides in Congress.

But under pressure from Republicans, Democrats recently have been tripping over themselves trying to prove their Israel allegiances. It started at the Democratic National Convention, when the party’s platform committee decided to omit language citing Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. (Israel and the Palestinians both claim Jerusalem as their capital; as a result, the international community, including the United States, treats Tel Aviv as the Israeli capital, headquartering embassies there.)

Party leaders — at Berkley’s urging — later orchestrated a reinsertion of the Jerusalem language into the platform over strong and vocal opposition from Democrats who believe pressing the matter inflames Arab sentiment and compromises peacemaking efforts in the region.

But right now, that’s not the main concern — winning the election is, and when it comes to Israel, the only thing that seems to matter is which party can portray itself as a stronger ally.

That is why even those excoriating Netanyahu are still seeking his approval.

“There is no daylight between the United States and Israel. As you personally stated during an appearance with President Obama in March, ‘We are you, and you are us,’” Boxer wrote in her letter. “Thank you for that statement. I am hoping to hear that statement again.”

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