Members of Congress are demanding that President Obama come clean about controversial reports that he is considering leveling sanctions on Israel, according to a letter sent Friday afternoon by lawmakers to the White House.
The Obama administration has found itself engulfed in controversy since reports emerged Thursday that the White House and State Department had met in secret to strategize about imposing sanctions on Israel for its continued building of houses in contested Jerusalem neighborhoods.
State Department and White House officials have continued to dodge questions from reporters on the matter, maintaining that they will neither confirm nor deny the reports.
The administration’s evasive position has prompted outrage among pro-Israel leaders and prompted Congress to demand that Obama start answering questions about the delicate issue.
"We urge you and your administration to clarify these reports immediately," Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.) and nearly 50 other House lawmakers wrote Friday afternoon, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
"Israel is one of our strongest allies, and the mere notion that the administration would unilaterally impose sanctions against Israel is not only unwise, but is extremely worrisome," they state. "Such reports send a clear message to our friends and enemies alike that such alliances with the United States government can no longer be unquestionably trusted."
Congress, which traditionally has purview over such measures, has never given the White House permission to sanction Israel.
"At no point in time has Congress given the administration the authority to sanction Israel," they wrote. "In fact, Congress has continued to show its unwavering support for Israel and has recently taken steps to increase our economic and military cooperation."
As the White House leaves the door open to sanctions on Israel, it is lobbying Congress against leveling more sanctions on Iran.
"At a time when you have requested an additional seven months to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, any attempts to undermine the U.S.’s support of Israel will only further diminish the administration’s ability to get congressional support for any potential agreement with Iran," the lawmakers wrote.
When faced with questions about these reports—which state that classified meetings were held between the White House and State Department about possibly sanctioning Israel over the settlement issue—Obama administration officials have refused to provide a clear answer.
"I’m not going to talk about any sort of internal deliberations inside the administration and certainly not inside the White House," Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday, a refrain also echoed by State Department spokesmen.
Earnest went on to condemn Israel for continuing to build Jewish homes in Jerusalem neighborhoods the Palestinian claim as their own.
"We believe settlements are illegitimate, and we have deep concerns about highly contentious planning and construction activities that the government is pursuing in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, he said.
When pressed on the possibility that sanctions will be leveled, Earnest again declined to give a clear answer, stating that he’s "not willing to talk about those kinds of conversations."
State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf offered a similar line on Friday afternoon when faced with questions
"I’m obviously not going to respond to unidentified anonymous sources’ reports about alleged internal deliberations," Harf told reporters.
She provided the same evasive answer on Thursday.
"I’m obviously not going to comment one way or another on reported internal deliberations," she told reporters. "We’ve made clear our position on settlement activity publicly and that hasn’t changed."
A White House National Security Council (NSC) official also would not comment on the report when contacted Thursday by the Free Beacon.
The administration’s refusal to provide a clear answer about the reports sends a troubling message and could damage America’s already fragile relationship with Israel.
"The fact that your administration has failed to denounce or clarify them is deeply troubling," the lawmakers write to Obama. "The United States must stand firm in its commitments to Israel, or we risk fracturing our relationship with Israel and other key partners across the globe. We urge you to quickly and sharply address these concerns, as well as take the steps necessary to demonstrate America’s unwavering support for Israel."
Other signers include: Reps. Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.), Pete Sessions (R., Texas), Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), Peter King (R., N.Y.), Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.), Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.), and Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), among many others.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.) released a statement late Friday voicing her concern over possible Israel sanctions, saying the threat of sanctions could damage the U.S.-Israel relationship.
"I am deeply disturbed by reports that the Administration could be contemplating sanctions against Israel," Ayotte said. "Any suggestion of sanctions against Israel by the United States is absurd."
Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) also voiced opposition to sanctions on Israel in a statement released Friday.
"Not only is the administration rejecting new sanctions to end Iran’s nuclear threat, it's now reportedly developing sanctions against our closest ally, Israel," Kirk said. "This move only worsens perceptions that the administration treats our friends like enemies and our enemies like friends."