john kerry 311.
(photo credit: AP)
WASHINGTON – Days before US Vice President Joe Biden starts his first
trip to Israel as vice president on Monday, senators and expert
witnesses criticized the Obama administration for missteps on the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process during a hearing Thursday.
senators also took Israel to task at times during the hearing on making
progress toward Middle East peace, with Foreign Relations Committee
Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) calling for improvements in
“the dire conditions in Gaza,” terming it “a great disappointment that
so little has been rebuilt” following the war there a year ago. He
urged the import of more reconstruction materials, some of the many
items Israel has barred in blockading the crossings.
addition, ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) raised the specter
of reducing American support for Israel and the Palestinian Authority
if they don’t comply with US demands on the peace process. Both parties
receive generous American aid packages, though Lugar did not mention
these monies in his comments.
“The consequences might be that
you really don’t receive our support – for a while you’re on your own.
Take it or leave it,” he suggested as one possible scenario, noting
that many would dismiss such an action because of the close US-Israel
relationship and the pivotal view of the Palestinians in the Middle
But, he warned, “The consequences of a failure to move
ahead have to be evident at some point. Somebody has to worry about
The Palestinians were also not immune to castigations
from Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania). He contended that “the Israelis
have shown, certainly in the last year, that they’ve been willing to
make real concessions. I can’t say the same, in my judgment, about the
Palestinians. I think there’s been a real reluctance or even refusal to
engage in real negotiations.”
But most of the criticism voiced
Thursday focused on the US approach toward peace-making in the region.
“Because of the Goldstone Report and the way in which the settlement
issue was handled, publicly hanging [PA] President [Mahmoud] Abbas out
to have an expectation that that was the standard and then going back
from it, left him weakened,” Kerry said, referring to two Obama
administration policies though he didn’t mention the US by name.
the case of the Goldstone Report, the US pressured Abbas to withdraw
support from the UN document alleging Israeli war crimes, sparking
criticism from his Palestinian constituents; in the case of the
settlements, the US called for a total settlement freeze from Israel
that Abbas accordingly made a precondition for talks, though Israel has
only agreed to a partial moratorium.
Kerry said the result of
this dynamic was the need for “a way to get him back,” something the
Arab League’s endorsement of proximity talks on Wednesday provided. At
the same time, Kerry and several others at the hearing characterized
indirect talks as an unsatisfactory situation. “Obviously there’s
disappointment – it’s almost pre-Madrid in terms of having proximity
talks,” Kerry said of a period 20 years ago when Israelis and
Palestinians weren’t talking directly.
Biden’s trip to Israel
and the PA next week is likely to see the official endorsement of
holding indirect talks after more than a year of American efforts to
get discussions started.
Still, the launching of these
negotiations are not seen as the primary focus of his trip, which will
coincide with another visit by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell,
the primary interlocutor in trying to get the negotiations off the
Instead, Biden is expected to delve most deeply into the
Iranian situation in his meeting with top Israeli leaders. He spent an
hour meeting with Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren at the
White House on Tuesday in preparation for the trip.
also going to meet with Israeli business leaders and deliver public
addresses in Tel Aviv and likely Haifa in a bid at outreach to the
An Israeli official described Oren’s meeting as
“warm and friendly,” in which Biden “expressed his enthusiasm for going
to Israel.” He also noted that “the administration is aware of the
feelings of Israeli public opinion, and therefore the administration is
aware that it needs to address Israeli public opinion and its
leadership, not only the Muslim world.”
Israelis have expressed frustration with the Obama administration
and a feeling that the White House has been more attentive to the
Muslim world and devoted more effort to Muslim outreach, particularly
with President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last June.
Obama administration’s outreach to the Muslim world and to Israel is
not a zero-sum game,” Oren said in a statement Thursday. “Just as
Israel appreciates President Obama’s assertion of Israel’s legitimacy
in the heart of the Muslim world, so, too, does Israel welcome Vice
President Biden’s arrival in Israel with a message of unqualified
commitment, admiration and friendship.”