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(photo credit: Moshe Milner / GPO)
Israel would lose nothing, and potentially gain everything, by agreeing to a temporary moratorium on construction in the settlements for a short period of time, Congressman Robert Wexler, a close political ally of US President Barack Obama and a stalwart Israel supporter, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
Wexler, on his third visit to Israel since December, met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, a day after Defense Minister Ehud Barak and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell met in New York and decided that the discussion over settlement construction would continue.
"A request for a moratorium or freeze in settlement activity that can be mutually agreed upon by the US and Israel in the next several weeks is a tiny, tiny gesture and down payment to make when you look at potentially what is on the other side of the equation," said Wexler.
On other side of the equation, he said, were 22 Arab countries being urged by the US to take significant steps now towards normalization with Israel.
"I want to call their bluff," Wexler said. "I want to see, if Israel makes substantial movement toward a credible peace process, whether they are willing to do it. And if they are not, better that we should find out five or six months into the process, before Israel is actually asked to compromise any significant position."
Asked what would happen if Israel were to say no to the moratorium request, Wexler said, "I don't think Israel will say no. I don't see an equation where it is in Israel's interest to say no, so I believe Israel will say yes, under a certain set of qualifications that Israel will agree to. This is one hundred percent in Israel's national security interest."
Regarding the types of "qualifications," Wexler said that that was up to the Israeli prime minister to decide.
"Any process of discussion requires compromise, particularly amongst friends and allies if they are coming from different points," he said, adding that every reasonable actor in the process understands that in a political dynamic there must be give and take.
Wexler bewailed that while the US demands on Israel were highlighted in the Israeli press, Washington's demands on the Arab world were not gaining similar attention.
According to Wexler, the Obama administration was making "equal, if not greater, demands on the Arab world in the context of starting the process and negotiations."
Wexler said that the demands on the Arab world - Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and the North African Arab states - were quite substantial in terms of steps of normalization. He said what was being discussed were trade offices, direct economic links, cultural and educational exchanges and over-fly rights for Israeli air carriers.
Moreover, he said the US was "open to suggestions from the Israeli side as to all the different indicators of normalization that would be important for Israel and that would create credibility among the Israeli public."
An Israeli settlement moratorium could go a long way toward moving that normalization process ahead, he said.
When asked why the Arab world couldn't first show signs of a willingness to normalize before Israel declares a moratorium, Wexler characterized such a demand as "childish."
Wexler, a liberal Democratic congressman from South Florida who was the first high-profile Jewish politician outside of Illinois to endorse Obama's presidential candidacy in 2007, said Obama was asking Israel for a moratorium on settlements, and a relaxing of conditions in the West Bank consistent with Israel's security requirements, in exchange for the Palestinians' adhering to their security conditions and responsibilities, and the Arab world being given a set of responsibilities that has not been given in the past.
"And if the Arab world fails to deliver," Wexler said, "you can rightly say that all bets are off."
Wexler dismissed concerns that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was waiting for Obama to "deliver" Israel while the PA made no conciliatory steps, saying that if he did believe that, he was disabused of the notion by Obama's positive response to Netanyahu's speech last month at Bar-Ilan University.
"If in fact the Palestinians believed that the American posture was that they didn't have to do anything, and the Americans would take care of this, then I think they learned the hard way," he said.
Wexler was also dismissive of the notion that the US was pushing Israel hard on the settlement issue as a way of bringing down the Netanyahu government.
"The president of the US does not have a view, or an opinion, or either a tactical or strategic posture on the government of Israel," he said. "The idea that the president, or anyone in any position of responsibility in Washington, is designing a process to undermine the policy or position or standing of the government of Israel is absurd."
Channel 1 reported last night that according to an Israeli source, Obama would be announcing his Mideast peace plan within a month.
Netanyahu on Wednesday night called Israel's bond with the United States "unbreakable."
"We have a brave relationship with the United States, a bond that President Obama himself defined as unbreakable; Indeed, our bond with the US is unbreakable," Netanyahu said, speaking at the US Independence Day reception at the American ambassador's residence in Herzliya.
Netnayhu went on to praise the US, calling the country a model for freedom and values.
In an allusion to the Iranian nuclear program, Netanyahu said freedom has usually triumphed over repressive regimes, but warned that the world order could break down if tyrannical regimes obtain weapons of mass destruction.
"The greatest danger facing our world today is that this historical consistency of the triumph and spread of democracy could change if the world's worst regimes acquire the world's most dangerous weapons," he said.
Netanyahu did not mention Iran, but he has often warned against allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran has denied it is pursuing nuclear weapons.
The prime minister went on to stress that the State of Israel and its citizens deeply appreciate the US, noting that several of Jerusalem's streets are named after former US presidents.
US Ambassador to Israel James Cunningham also mentioned the strong bond to Israel, and said the US is committed to the security of Israel and to the security of Israel's citizens.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report