On the eve of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that will ultimately have to discuss security guarantees for Israel, US Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) told The Jerusalem Post that the deployment of US troops anywhere in the West Bank was very unlikely.

Hoyer, who led a delegation of 36 Democratic congressmen to Israel over the past week, said during an interview on Thursday that the issue was not raised in meetings the congressional group held either with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or with PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat.

“I would doubt that the prime minister, the Palestinians or the United States are contemplating the deployment of US troops on the ground,” Hoyer said.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly that a long-term Israeli security presence would be necessary in the Jordan Valley following a peace accord with the Palestinians.

The Palestinians have said this was a non-starter, but that they would be willing to entertain the notion of international troops, an idea Israel has rejected.

“The United States has clearly indicated it is prepared to play a significant role,” Hoyer said.

“But I don’t want to say at this juncture that I think that contemplates the deployment of US troops on the ground in the West Bank.”

The congressman said one of the major problems with deploying US troops would be that they themselves would become the targets of terrorist attacks.

This did not mean, Hoyer clarified, that the US would not be willing to play a role in the security issue, but that such a role was likely to stop well short of committing troops.

Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, left Israel on Sunday with the Democratic delegation, just as a large Republican delegation of 26 congressmen was arriving. The Republican group, which includes 25 of the 34 freshman Republican congressmen, will be lead by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia).

Both groups were sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charitable organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

During a press conference last week, Hoyer repeated what US Secretary of State John Kerry said when he announced the renewal of talks, that both sides made difficult sacrifices to come to the negotiation table. Hoyer acknowledged that the release of Palestinian terrorists was a difficult Israeli sacrifice, and said that from the Palestinian position their sacrifice was a willingness to enter the negotiations without a settlement freeze.

“Their position has been for a number of years that they would not do anything if the issue of settlements was not dealt with,” he said. “And of course that was not dealt with – there was no pledge [of a settlement construction freeze].”

Asked why he thought Kerry focused so intensively on the Israeli-Palestinian track, at a time when Egypt and Syria were both burning, Hoyer acknowledged that this was one area in the Middle East where the US would be able to be proactive, rather than just reactive. US objectives in Syria and Egypt, he indicated, were “not as clear as here.”

“The objectives of restarting talks was a very clear objective, and not politically controversial in America at all,” he said. “I think it was therefore a relatively easy decision to make, and if we could get this done, it is in the interests of all parties: Israel, the Palestinians and the United States.”

Hoyer said that the US can “walk and chew gum at the same time,” and that Washington was simultaneously able to concentrate on developments in Syria and Egypt, and on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

Hoyer, a staunch Israeli supporter who has served in Congress since 1981, dismissed the notion that support for Israel was slipping in the Democratic Party, saying that the recent House vote for more stringent sanctions against Iran, which passed by a vote of 400 to 20, was an indication that the support remains strong. The vote included 178 Democrats for, and 17 against.

“There is a very strong, very large consensus in the Democratic caucus that Israel’s security and safety is of critical importance to the United States and to America’s security,” he said.

Hoyer said that what was important about the Iran sanctions resolution, beyond the language that called for targeting Iran’s oil industry, was the massive support it received on both sides of the aisle.

“When you have 400 plus members in a body of 435, asserting support for Israel and its security, that sends a very powerful message of unity, particularly in a Congress that has difficulty achieving unity,” he said.

The “unusual and unprecedented” bipartisan support for Israel rivals only that of the bipartisan support for American military veterans, he said.

Asked, however, whether the incident at last year’s Democratic National Convention – where a boilerplate clause referring to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was originally left off the platform – was not an indication of changing winds inside the party, Hoyer said the incident did not represent the position of the Democrats in Congress or the administration.

Once the leadership focused on the issue, he said, it was addressed immediately.

He denied that the ruckus surrounding the incident on the convention floor in Charlotte, North Carolina, indicated Israel was losing support among the party’s faithful.

Hoyer pointed again to the Iran sanctions, and said that when 180 members of the party – from the most conservative areas to those representing the most liberal districts – vote for a resolution perceived as a very important for Israel, “then you understand there is a large consensus of support.”

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