Friday, May 27, 2011 | 1:55 a.m.
Rep. Shelley Berkley and Sen. Harry Reid are in lock step with President Barack Obama when it comes to most of his domestic policies: They’ve been executors of his health care plan, defenders of the stimulus, and champions of his stances on energy, immigration and social spending.
But on foreign policy, Berkley and Reid appear to be parting ways with the president, and they’re doing it over Israel.
Obama took the bold step last week by becoming the first U.S. president to publicly endorse a two-state solution to end the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on pre-1967 lines, in a speech delivered on the eve of a diplomatic visit from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
That didn’t sit well with Nevada’s Democratic delegation. Berkley was the first to sound an alarm, saying she was “extremely troubled by President Obama’s call for Israel to ‘act boldly’ for peace” and “also deeply concerned by any calls for Israel to return to the armistice line that existed before 1967 — that line left Israel far too vulnerable to outside attack.”
Reid followed suit a few days later, with a shout-out to Berkley and Nevada’s “fastest-growing Jewish community in the country.”
“I will make sure the United States Congress stands with Israel every time ... our futures will be intertwined even more than our history has been,” Reid pledged to a crowd at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, while offering what sounded like a rebuke of Obama’s speech. “These negotiations will not happen, and their terms will not be set, through speeches, or in the streets, or in the media. No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building or about anything else.”
The security of Israel is a deeply personal and emotional issue for Berkley, who is Jewish, and for Reid, whose wife Landra converted from Judaism to Mormonism when they married, and whose mentor, former Nevada Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, was a strong supporter of and frequent traveler to Israel.
Their move away from the president, although centered in personal convictions, appears to be conscious of the Nevada electorate, which, as Reid put it, “is a spirited pro-Israel community.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may depend on lines drawn in sand thousands of miles away, but for many Nevadans, it resonates at home.
“People care very passionately for the safety and security of the state of Israel,” said Rabbi Yocheved Mintz of Las Vegas’ Valley Outreach Synagogue, a reform congregation. “This has hit a nerve, not just among Jewish voters, but among all those who support the freedom of the state of Israel and its position with the United States.”
Nevada, and especially Las Vegas, has a rooted Jewish community that has been loyal to Israel. Jewish-Americans were some of the earliest Las Vegas residents, coming in as a small but crucial population that largely built what would become the city’s lifeblood: the Strip’s resorts, in the postwar years.
In the decades since, the Jewish community has grown dramatically, numbering an estimated 100,000 across the state.
It’s a well-connected, but not particularly activist population, according to historian Michael Green, a professor at the College of Southern Nevada. But the community is very supportive of Israel, rhetorically and financially, especially through its more influential members: whether that’s Sands owner and noted conservative Sheldon Adelson, who’s a staunch supporter of Netanyahu, or Berkley, who, as Green put it, “is as strong a supporter of Israel as you’re likely to find outside of Israel, even stronger than some inside Israel.”
Israel has been in a protracted standoff with Palestinians, whether it’s the population of Israel, those living in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, or those in other countries: the descendants of the several hundred thousand Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the war surrounding Israel’s founding in 1948, and who number in the millions.
Generations of Americans have been struggling to wrap their heads and hearts around the conflict for almost as long, through study, travel to the region, and proxy peace dialogues between immigrant communities affiliated with either side. But there’s less of that in Las Vegas than other U.S. metropolises, likely because the local population of Jews so completely outnumbers the Arabs.
Jewish-Americans overwhelmingly outnumber Arab-Americans in the Las Vegas area: According to the 2000 Census, only 6,183 people claimed Arab ethnic origin in Clark County, with Palestinians numbering so few that they weren’t even listed separately. In the same year, the estimate of Clark County Jews was about 75,000.
Still, the conflict has captured the attention not just of the two peoples involved, but those of the Arab world and the United States, which are entering a new chapter of their relationship in the post-Osama bin Laden era that’s been even more emphatically defined by the democratic revolutions collectively known as the Arab Spring.
Obama had hoped to capitalize on that energy when he called for resolution to this central conflict along lines that have been the negotiation status quo — diplomats have agreed for decades that the solution to the conflict lies in creating two neighboring states: one Jewish state for Israelis, and one the Palestinians.
There’s been a basic acceptance of the pre-1967 lines, too: Those being the U.N.-recognized national boundaries that split Israel and a future Palestinian state along the borders that existed before Israel gained the West Bank from Jordan, and the Gaza Strip and much of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt in 1967, and the Golan Heights from Syria in 1973. (Israel pulled its troops out of Sinai in 1982, after concluding a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979.)
The 1967 borders are problematic because Israelis have built several Jewish settlements in the West Bank since it was annexed, many of which both sides acknowledge are too large and established to be dismantled. They also raise the question of whether Jerusalem will be divided between the predominantly Arab East side and Jewish West. If it is, Jews argue, it would unfairly cut off Jewish access to the bulk of the city’s renowned holy sites. Palestinians however, insist East Jerusalem is legally theirs, not only because it’s home to the third-holiest site in Islam, the Al-Aqsa mosque (located next to the well-known gold-cupolaed Dome of the Rock on land Jews refer to as the Temple Mount), but because like the West Bank, East Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule until the 1967 war.
Netanyahu has also agreed to the 1967 lines, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a joint statement the two released in November, which stated that “the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.”
But to Jewish-Americans watching developments in the Middle East, the stakes since then have been rising.
It’s not just the 1967 lines. There’s concern about a unity agreement struck this month between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. The agreement was brokered by mediators from Egypt, which this week is also taking the step of opening up its border with the Gaza Strip to Palestinian travelers. The poverty-stricken Gaza Strip has been under a joint blockade since 2006, when Hamas came to power; Israel has not indicated any concurrent intention to lift it.
The quartet of international trustees overseeing the road map to peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories — the U.S., the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations — had long been pushing for a unity agreement in which Hamas, which the U.S. lists as a terrorist group, would agree to end its armed resistance against Israel. But that didn’t fully happen under the terms of the agreement: Hamas has agreed to a cease-fire of the rockets that are regularly fired at Israeli territory from Gaza, but hasn’t rewritten its fundamental charter, in which the group makes clear that it does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.
“I think the president was pretty clear in saying that the Palestinian Authority had to renounce terrorism as a tactic in terrorist organizations,” said Elliot Karp, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas. “But Hamas is clearly a terrorist organization, and Hamas is now part of the Palestinian Authority ... unless the representative groups that make up the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel’s right to exist, and renounce their calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, you don’t have a negotiating party you can sit down with.”
In the meantime, local Jews are demanding the president take a much tougher line than he is.
“Giving them any type of territory, it really hasn’t helped out anything,” said Eddy Chaltiel, 25, the son of former mayoral candidate Victor Chaltiel, who said he was supportive of Obama but has become disillusioned. “It hasn’t increased peace, it hasn’t promoted peace in that area. I think a lot of Jews in Southern Nevada are pretty upset about what he said.”
“Even though the president talked about land swaps, I’m pretty sure that all the Palestinians heard was ‘1967,’ ” Berkley said. “I thought both of his points were nonstarters, and not artfully stated.”
Berkley has been much more outspoken about her disdain for Obama’s Israel stance than Reid. She has called for the United States to end its foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority and also introduced legislation in Congress to ensure that if the new government in Egypt retreats from the peace treaty with Israel, the U.S. will rescind its foreign aid to Egypt.
Those are strong steps to the right of the president and echo the impassioned campaign that many Republicans are staging on the floors of Congress, striking at the first chink in the president’s foreign policy armor since Obama triumphantly announced the death of bin Laden.
But even though almost everything that goes through Washington these days is looking toward 2012, Israel may be the exception.
Strong support for Israel is bipartisan, both in the Nevada delegation and in Congress, which in joint session this week welcomed Netanyahu with a warmer reception and more standing ovations than the president received during his State of the Union address.
Although Israel is an important issue for Berkley, as is it to Nevada’s Jewish electorate, it isn’t everything: Come election time in the swinging Silver State, Berkley and Obama will still need each other’s support, built around the domestic issues that are likely to play a much bigger role in 2012, to thrive — likely meaning there are limits to how publicly incensed Berkley will get.
Although some in Congress are calling for a resolution of formal rebuke to Obama for his stated Israel policy, she says she has no intention of taking her disagreement that far.
“I’m less concerned about rebuking the president of the United States,” she said. “I’m more concerned about the policy of the United States.”