US Representative Steny Hoyer.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel-US ties will remain strong in the long-term despite the sharp disagreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama over the Iran deal, visiting House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told The Jerusalem Post.
“The underlying relationship between the US and Israel has not been adversely affected,” said the senior American democratic politician from Maryland who is leading a group of 23 other House members from his party on a week-long visit to Israel on a trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, which is affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
In light of the upcoming congressional vote by September 17 on the deal reached between Tehran and six world powers, including the US, Iran has been one of the dominant issues during the trip. The deal curbs Iran’s nuclear program and allows for international inspections in exchange for lifting sanctions, but leaves Tehran with the ability to develop atomic weapons in the future.
“There is a great degree of controversy [over the Iran deal] which is normally not the case on issues relating to Israel,” Hoyer said on Thursday.
The group listened to President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday as he explained his opposition to the agreement, Hoyer said, adding that he expected to hear more about the deal when the group met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday.
Some members of the group have already made up their minds, while others like Hoyer remain undecided, the congressman said.
“This is a very important vote for the Middle East,” Hoyer said.
Among the issues that concern him, the representative said, is the reliability of the inspections of Iranian nuclear sites, the ability to reinstate sanctions should violations occur and overall consequences for Iran should it break the deal.
“Our [the US] policy has not changed. A nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. The issue is: Does this agreement support that objective or undermine it? That is the decision that Congress will make. Once it is made, all parties will move on to accommodate the reality,” Hoyer said.
But the politics around the debate have presented difficulties to politicians on the hill who support Israel, such as himself.
Netanyahu’s decision to address a joint session of Congress at the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner did undermine bi-partisanship in the short term, he said.
“It was not something he [Netanyahu] should have done,” Hoyer said.
Both Israel and the United States ought to protect bi-partisan consensus around Israel, he added.
“I have worked with Republican leaders for many years to ensure that decisions [on Israel] are almost overwhelmingly supported by both Democrats and Republicans,” he said.
On Thursday, the group met with Palestinian Authority Finance Minister Shukri Bishara to talk about a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We found him very open and we understood it to be a useful meeting. We are certainly concerned about the two-state solution,” Hoyer said.
But he added that any resolution of the conflict must take into account Israel’s security need, so that violence that followed an Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon and Gaza won’t repeat itself.
Hoyer recalled a congressional visit he made to Israel in 2005, just as the IDF was evacuating the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and removing its army from the Strip.
“We were here about six hours before we met with [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon from 4:45 to about 6:15 p.m.,” on the evening of what Hoyer recalled was the start of the Disengagement.
Sharon told the congressional delegation that maintaining troops and settlers in Gaza was not in Israel’s best long-term security interests, said Hoyer.
“I think people would now say that this was not the case,” he said.
Hoyer is proud to be on his 14th trip to Israel since his first visit in 1976 while he was the president of the Maryland Senate at age 36.
“I have been back 13 times and I brought about 150 members of Congress here,” Hoyer said.
“Every time I learn something new and I am more impressed by the resiliency and the courage and the commitment of the Israeli people. They are an inspiration and they can inspire people in the US in terms of the love of country,” he said.