(GUARDIAN) Hardline pro-Israel groups in the US have been confronting President Barack Obama’s demands for a halt to settlement expansion by accusing him of promoting the ethnic cleansing of Jews and jeopardising Israel’s security.
Members of Congress allied with Israel and powerful lobby groups in Washington are also trying to shift the focus of administration policy from the Jewish settlements, arguing they are not an obstacle to peace, to demands for Arab governments to recognise Israel.
The strategy, intertwined with a similar campaign by Israeli politicians and officials, has taken on added urgency because of Obama’s demands, first laid down during a testy meeting in May with the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, that Israel freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank.
Netanyahu arrives in London tomorrow for a series of key meetings, including four hours of discussions on Wednesday with the White House’s special envoy, George Mitchell. He is also due to see Gordon Brown on Tuesday.
The visit comes amid signs that an agreement will eventually be reached for a settlement freeze for up to a year.
But both sides regard that as merely a first step in a wider struggle over the future of the settlements, as well as other issues including the pace of negotiations toward the establishment of a Palestinian state and the shape of final borders.
The strategy to play down the significance of the settlements is laid out in a document drawn up for an influential pro-Israel lobby group by a prominent Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, on how to influence American public opinion.
The Israel Project, with an advisory board that includes 20 members of Congress from both parties, issued the confidential document to its supporters at about the time Obama came to power in January.
The report, marked as “not for distribution or publication” but since widely disseminated outside of the organisation, says that those who back the removal of the settlements should be told they are supporting ethnic cleansing and antisemitism. The guide offers what it describes as “the best settlement argument”.
“The idea that anywhere that you have Palestinians there can’t be Jews, that some areas have to be Jew-free, is a racist idea. We don’t say that we have to cleanse out Arabs from Israel. They are citizens of Israel. They enjoy equal rights. We cannot see why it is that peace requires that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews,” the guide says.
The accusation of ethnic cleansing is particularly ironic for many Palestinians, as the past 41 years of occupation have been marked by a continual forced removal of Arabs to make way for Jews.
The Israel Project document advises its supporters to argue that “settlements are necessary for the security of Israel” while also urging them to mislead Americans over the important role of religion in land seizures.
“You must avoid using Israel’s religious claims to land as a reason why Israel should not give up land. Such claims only make Israel look extremist to people who are not religious Christians or Jews,” it says. These views are shared by some influential members of Congress.
Last week, the chairman of the US House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, Howard Berman, a Democrat, told a closed meeting of Jewish leaders in Los Angeles that Obama was wrong to put pressure on Israel over the settlements.
Berman said the administration’s position had benefitted the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who was “waiting for the US to present him Israel on a platter”.
The Israel Project report concedes that justifying the settlements to ordinary Americans is a tough sell.
“Nothing is tougher to articulate effectively to neutral Americans than a message in favour of the settlements. Let me be clear about this conclusion. Plenty of Israeli and American Jewish leaders have tried, but American and European audiences rejected almost everything we tested. There is no magic language to unify public support,” it says.
Israel’s supporters have recognised that by attempting to shift the focus to another issue.
The Anti-Defamation League published a full-page advert in the New York Times denouncing Obama’s pressure on Israel. “The problem isn’t settlements, it’s Arab rejection,” it said.
“The obstacle to peace is not Israel. The settlements are not the impediment … Mr President, it’s time to stop pressuring our vital friend and ally. It’s now time to direct your attention to the rejectionists who refuse to recognise Israel and negotiate an end to the conflict.” The Zionist Organisation of America has taken a similar position.
Another group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has thrown its backing behind a letter to Obama from a majority of members of the US Senate praising Netanyahu for taking “concrete measures” to advance peace, such as easing some restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, and asking the president what he is doing to get Arab governments to recognise Israel. Seventy-one of 100 senators have signed the letter.
But the pressure has drawn criticism from other Jewish groups in the US in an unusual public split over Israel policy. One organisation that presses for greater concessions by the Israeli government, J Street, has publicly condemned the ADL advert.