US President Barack Obama’s decision to re-appoint an ambassador to Syria was a “mistake,” US Congressman Eliot Engel (D-New York) told The Jerusalem Post.
Engel was the sponsor of a 2003 bill calling for sanctions against Syria if it doesn’t end support for terrorism and leave Lebanon.
In reference to the brouhaha over the Foreign Ministry’s decision not to meet with J Street members accompanying a delegation of US congressman, Engel – who was in Israel last week – defended the government’s right to meet with whom it saw fit.
“It’s up to Israeli officials to decide who they will meet with, and who not to meet with,” he said.
He pointed out that a number of the congressmen that J Street brought over vote against Israel on resolutions that generally carry massive support on the House floor.
For instance, two of those congressman – California Democrats Lois Capps and Bob Filner – voted against House Resolution 867 that slammed the Goldstone Report and re-affirmed Israel’s right to self-defense.
Another member of the delegation, Bill Delahunt (D-Massachusetts), voted “present,” while Donald Payne (D-New Jersey) did not vote. The only member of the delegation to back the resolution, deemed in Jerusalem an important pro-Israel resolution, was Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio).
The resolution passed 344-36, with another 22 voting “present,” and 20 not voting.
J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami, in a post on the organization’s Web site Friday, characterized members of the delegation his organization brought to the country as “key friends of Israel in Congress.”
Engel, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a staunch supporter of Israel in the House, said J Street takes “positions in Washington I have difficulty with.”
Engel said J Street’s statements “over-emphasize” what the organization feels Israel is not doing, “rather than putting the blame squarely where I think it belongs – the Palestinian attitude of denying Israel the right to exist as a Jewish state.”
He continued, “If you look at some of the votes we had in the US Congress pertaining to Israel and the Middle East, there are some people on that [J Street] trip who the government would be unhappy with regarding their votes – and that would be understandable. They probably feel that if people are going to criticize them, they don’t have to facilitate the criticism.”
Regarding the appointment last week of Robert Ford as Washington’s first envoy to Syria in five years, Engel said he had “reservations” about the move, saying that Damascus has been “obstructionist” and is a huge supporter of Iran, which “right now is the worst player in the region.
“Iran right now is attempting to develop a nuclear bomb, is a major financer of international terrorism, and Syria is right by their side,” Engel said. “Both Iran and Syria, in my opinion, play a destabilizing role in Lebanon, and I just haven’t seen a sign of any moderation on behalf of the Syrians. We have been down this road before.”
Engel said he viewed appointing an ambassador to Damascus as a mistake, “unless Syria has agreed to something I am not privy to behind the scenes, making themselves helpful, ready to take some steps away from Iran, ready to cooperate in the region for peace and stability.
“If there was a wink and a nod and some quid pro quo, then there is some rationale for the move, but short of that, I don’t see any rationale in it at this time.”
Engel said it was pretty clear that a year of Obama’s engagement policy toward Iran has “pretty much failed, and that all the Iranians are doing are playing for time to get more time to build the bomb.”
Engel said the Obama administration understood this now, which is why it was stepping up its call for sanctions against Teheran.
Another way to pressure Iran is to isolate it, which Engel assumed was one of the reasons for the reappointment of an ambassador to Syria, hoping that this would be a way to tear Syria out of the Iranian orbit.
Asked about Obama’s overall Middle East policy, Engel – one of the first Democratic congressmen who broke with Obama’s polices on Israel early on – said that the administration clearly “made some mistakes getting out of the box.”
Engel said Obama erred in publicly pressing the settlement issue, something that made Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “dig in his heels.”
Likewise, he said, by publicly pressuring Israel, and not simultaneously pressing the Palestinians on any issues, “it just gives the wrong impression.”
This, he said, turned Israeli public opinion against the president, “and it is very hard for the Israeli government to make concessions when the population is feeling beleaguered and kind of betrayed, in a way, by the US.”
However, Engel said, the administration has learned from its mistakes and “has backed off from publicly pressuring Israel.”
And, he added, the administration has been “extremely helpful in terms of helping Israel maintain its qualitative military edge in the region.”
Unwilling to go into details, Engel said that various arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states that were approved during the last year of the Bush administration had significantly eroded Israel’s military edge.
Although those arms were intended as protection against Iran, he said, they could also be turned against Israel, something that had Jerusalem “nervous and edgy.”
The Obama administration, he said, was providing Israel with what was needed to retain that qualitative edge.
The Wikipedia entry for Engel, whose ethnically diverse district includes part of the Bronx, and parts of Westchester and Rockland counties, stated that he was the co-chair of the Congressional Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs, and a friend of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
Asked how he reconciled his staunch friendship for Israel with a
friendship with Adams and Sinn Fein, who are harsh and caustic critics
of Israel, Engel said that he has discussed the issue with Adams and
made his position on Israel clear.
“We have in New York multi-ethnic communities, and I have been very
supportive of Irish Americans,” he said. “If the litmus test was that I
had to agree with every position that different countries and different
parties took [on Israel], I wouldn’t talk to anybody.”