President Obama and his advisors pressure Prime Minister Netanyahu to avoid intensive contacts with Congress. They claim that such contacts would undermine the Presidency, and would therefore damage US-Israel relations. However, refraining from such contacts would demote Congress into a "Supporting Actor," and thus would be an insult to the American People, to its representatives on Capitol Hill and to the US democracy, which regard Congress as a "Co-Starring Actor." In the long run, it would degrade vital Israeli interests and weaken US-Israel relations.
In 1992, I was told by then Majority Leader, Senator George Mitchell: "Doesn't Israel realize that the US is not a monarchy and that the President is strong but not omnipotent?!" And, in fact it was Congress – and not the President – that stopped US military involvement in Vietnam (Eagleton Amendment,) Angola (Clark Amendment,) Nicaragua (Boland Amendment,) forced the USSR to let the Jews go (Jackson-Vanik Amendment,) approved emergency aid to the former USSR (Aspen-Nunn Amendment,) toppled the White regime in Pretoria (Anti-Apartheid Act,) provided Israel with emergency assistance following the 1991 Gulf War in defiance of Bush and Baker, etc.
Recent Israeli governments have underestimated the power of Congress, as a result of the highlighted global profile of the President. Still, a US President is powerful, but – unlike Israeli Prime Ministers – he is not the chairman of his party and not the leader of his congressional slate. He does not anoint the Speaker, majority leaders and committee chairs. And he does not determine which bills should pass in Congress.
The President is one of three arms of government, which are equal in power and independence. He is constrained by the decentralized Federal system, by an effective Separation of Powers and by an elaborate system of checks and balances, which are designed to prevent tyranny. The President initiates and executes policy, but Congress – which is featured in the first article of the US Constitution - possesses the "Power of the Purse" and the authority to change, suspend and initiate policy, prevent senior presidential appointments and add and eliminate government departments and agencies.
While the relative presidential weight increases during national security crises, the relative weight of Congress is upgraded during financial crises. The confrontational or defiant nature of the President-Congress relationship constitutes a significant watchdog over US democracy.
Israel's government assumes that the Congressional Democratic majorities provide President Obama with a "free ride." However, Senator Robert Byrd, President Pro-Tempore of the Senate has persisted in quipping at Democratic and Republican presidents: "Legislators are the servants of the Constitution, not the servants of the President."
Cultivate ties with CongressFormer Speaker, Democratic House Member Tom Foley, advised President Clinton in 1993 not to take House and Senate Democratic majorities for granted: "We won't be able to support all your ambitious policies, because our political life expectancy (running every two years) is different than yours (running every four years)." Clinton ignored the advice and caused the Democratic Party crash in the November 1994 election.
The loyalty of the 535 federal legislators – who represent districts and states more than political parties – is first and foremost to their constituents, to the Separation of Powers and to the independence of the Legislature and only then to the President. Therefore, over 30 Democratic House Members supported the impeachment of Clinton, many Democrats opposed Clinton's free trade initiatives, caused Obama to rescind the appointment of anti-Israel pro-China Chas Freeman, forced Obama to boycott the UN Durbin II Conference and are not automatic supporters of Obama's proposals to close down the Guantanamo jail, to bail out Wall Street and the Detroit car makers, dramatically increase the national debt, etc.
As the November 2010 congressional elections approach, and as economic recovery is further delayed, the more dependent Obama becomes on a willing Congress and the more independent and defiant will the legislators become.
In 1891, six years before the First World Zionist Congress, in defiance of the US Department of State, 400 US dignitaries co-led by the Speaker of the House and the Chairman of the House International Relations Committee signed the "Blackstone Memorial," which called for a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel. In 1922, 26 years before the establishment of the Jewish State, The US House and Senate unanimously passed a Joint Resolution, reaffirming congressional support of a Jewish State between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
The enhancement of Israel's critical interests and the demonstration of respect towards the US democracy, behoove Israel's Prime Minister to cultivate ties with Congress - the most authentic representation of the US public, equal in power to the President, a bastion of support for closer US-Israel ties, which appreciates the unique covenant binding the US and the Jewish State: Democracy, shared Judeo-Christian values, mutual regional and global threats and joint strategic interests.
Yoram Ettinger is a US and Middle Eastern affairs expert