Democratic congressman slams Obama’s ME policy

Ackerman: Shift away from settlements creates an opportunity to focus on Iran's proliferation threat.

December 10, 2010 04:04
4 minute read.
The Jerusalem Post

311_US rep Gary Ackerman. (photo credit: Bloomberg)

WASHINGTON – While GOP Congressmen have been clear about their intention to step up criticism of the Obama administration over its stance towards Israel once Republicans take over the US House of Representatives in January, there are signs that Democrats could also be more willing to challenge the White House’s Middle East policies in the coming session.

Just hours after news that the US would be changing its approach to reviving the peace process, Democratic New York Rep. Gary Ackerman welcomed the news and issued a sharp rebuke of the Obama administration’s approach until now.

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“I sincerely hope this decision represents a strategic shift in the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East,” said Ackerman, of its decision not to push for a deal over extending Israel’s settlement moratorium as a means of restarting direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.

“The shift of effort away from the settlements issue, which was and is truly tangential to the future of the region, creates an opportunity to focus on the singular, totally consuming issue in the Middle East, namely stopping Iran’s determined effort to acquire nuclear weapons.”

Since assuming office, the administration has pushed for Israel to freeze settlements as a path to direct negotiations.

Israel eventually imposed a temporary freeze, but face-toface talks started only a month before the freeze expired and promptly stalled upon its termination, with Palestinians demanding the freeze be renewed as a condition for talks.

After weeks of US efforts to get Israel to renew the freeze for three months, a US official said Tuesday that “after a considerable effort, we have concluded that this does not create a firm basis to work towards our shared goal of a framework agreement,” and that other paths would be pursued.

The decision is the latest in a series of setbacks for the Obama administration since the midterm elections in November gave control of the US House of Representatives to Republicans. Domestically, Obama this week yielded to GOP pressure to extend tax cuts for the wealthy and faced a backlash from his liberal base.

“With the president’s popularity so low – and his limping from the disaster of the midterm elections – Democrats who disagree with his administration’s policies are more emboldened to speak out,” said a Washington Jewish leader who works closely with Congress.

“We’ve seen it this week with the tax compromise, and we are seeing it as well as it relates to the US-Israel relationship.

Democrats who held their tongues when Obama was the most popular man in the world are now speaking their minds.”

“I think as more holes get poked in this administration’s plan for Middle East peace, more people are going to be willing to be critical,” said a congressional staffer to a Democratic member of the House. “Obviously people are less likely to criticize a very powerful administration.”

He said that on settlements, there has always been concern from members. “On the settlements issue, the vast majority of Israel’s supporters in Congress disagreed with the administration’s approach,” he said.

But the staffer also suggested that the new move could alleviate much of the feeling that “the administration has emphasized the issue of settlements too much.”

He also added that Ackerman’s statement isn’t the first time a member of Congress has been willing to speak out against the administration, particularly by the blunt-talking Ackerman.

“Members of Congress, even Obama’s supporters in Congress, have been willing to criticize him when they disagree with the peace process,” the staffer said.

An Ackerman aide said that the congressman chose to issue his policy statement because “he thinks it’s the right thing to do.”

He also pointed out that Ackerman made similar points on Iran before, particularly at an address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in July.

David Harris of the National Jewish Democratic Council, however, defended the Obama administration’s approach.

“The administration has enough moving parts to keep their eye on the ball of their number one foreign policy priority, which is Iran,” he said.

“Clearly the administration is vigorously pursuing isolating Iran.”

He called it a “fallacy” to think that either the White House’s pursuit of Middle East peace or seeking to end Iran’s nuclear quest had come at the cost of the other.

Just how loudly and frequently Democratic members take issue with the White House on the Middle East could also depend on what they see Republicans do, according to the Democratic staffer.

He noted that Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was confirmed as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday, has not shied away from being loudly critical of Obama and aggressive in supporting Israel.

Upon being confirmed, Ros- Lehtinen put out a statement in which she praised playing “hardball” with rogue regimes, backing “strong sanctions and other penalties” against such governments.

She also said wouldn’t hesitate to call for halting US funding to “failed entities like the discredited Human Rights Council” at the UN if changes aren’t made.

“As the Republican Congress lays down new markers for what it means to be hawkish on Israel, it will be interesting to see how many Democrats supportive of Israel will feel the need to move in their direction,” the Democratic staffer said.

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