Diplomacy: A friend in a key place in the House

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, believes the Bush administration should spend less diplomatic energy 'nitpicking about settlements' and more on Iran.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen 2248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen 2248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should spend more time and energy focusing on stopping the Iranian nuclear march than pushing the Annapolis process. The Palestinians should stop using Israel as scapegoat for all their problems. The world should stop thinking that all would be well in the Middle East if Israel just stopped construction in east Jerusalem and the settlements. It is obviously no big deal when sentiments like these are voiced by Israelis. When they are voiced by certain American Jews, it is considered routine, natural, part of the community's support for Israel. But when these thoughts are articulated by the ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, one of the most powerful bodies shaping US foreign policy, then the eyebrow is raised. And the eyebrow is raised even higher when the speaker is neither Jewish nor an Evangelical Christian, but rather an influential member of America's Hispanic community who is listed in a book entitled The Hispanic 100: A Ranking of the Latino Men and Women Who Have Most Influenced American Thought and Culture. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a Cuban-Finnish name, extremely difficult to pronounce, which over the years has emerged as belonging to one of Israel's strongest and most consistent supporters in Congress. The Ros half of her name attests to her birth in Cuba - she moved in 1960 to the US with her family when she was eight, a year after Fidel Castro's revolution. The Lehtinen part of her name comes from her husband, Dexter, who has Finnish ancestry. Ros-Lehtinen was in Jerusalem this week as part of a mission that brought to the country a number of current and former politicians, as well as businessmen, and she sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss the root of her support for Israel. She represents Florida 's 18th congressional district, a heavily Hispanic and Jewish area that takes in Miami Beach all the way down to Key West, and includes areas like Coral Gables, Little Havana, Coconut Grove and Key Biscayne. "It's tough, right," she says with a characteristic ready laugh, referring to the physical attributes of her district. "I represent paradise." By contrast, she recognizes that Israel is not paradise, at least not politically and strategically, and she started off by saying that she had no intention on divulging her opinion on Israel's current hot button issues: Is the Gaza Strip cease-fire agreement wise; was the week's prisoner exchange deal a good move; are the indirect talks with Syria for real. Ros-Lehtinen said she would not presume to know what is best for Israel, "because you are in the neighborhood, you have to deal with these bad actors all the time. I can afford to be pious and say, 'Don't negotiate, don't make deals and don't have conversations,' but you are the ones who have to live with the situation." Rather than advise Israel, Ros-Lehtinen - who is both the first Hispanic woman and the first Cuban elected to Congress - felt more comfortable discussing US policy in the region, which she feels is misguided in certain respects. For instance, she was not impressed that Rice has made 21 trips here over the last three years, many of them in the last year to push forward the Annapolis process. "I have a warm working relationship with Secretary Rice, and I congratulate her for her leadership role in this process, but I believe that there is so much to be done, and so little time left for this administration, that the time could well be spent better in other areas," she said. Ros-Lehtinen said that part of the problem was that Israel's "supposed partners for peace are not really there." The US and the international community have tried "very hard to prop up the government of Mahmoud Abbas, and it hasn't gotten us very far," she said, adding that Rice could make "20 more visits" from now until late January and it wouldn't make much difference. "There is just too little time left to do such a monumental task, no matter how many Annapolis conferences we convene," she said. As to why the US was pushing ahead anyway, Ros-Lehtinen said both because it was a "worthy mission," and also because "I think the president wants to have a legacy that is not just Iraq, but many other things, many other aspects of international and domestic policy. And, by the way, who does not want Middle East peace, except for the terrorists and the zealots who love blood and want to destroy nonbelievers?" She came squarely out and said what many both in the government here and in Washington think, but won't articulate: that it is not realistic to think that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will be hammered out before Bush leaves office in January. "I don't think it is feasible at the moment to broker an agreement and a peace deal," she said. The informally dressed congresswoman, who with her green Lacoste shirt and informal pants looked unassumingly like an average tourist in the King David Hotel, where this interview was held, dismissed the argument that the Annapolis process was important because it set into motion a process that would outlast the transition period the region has now entered - with Bush on his way out, and question marks over the futures of both Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "I don't know if building the process is enough of a goal to have," Ros-Lehtinen said. "When you get a framework that is good for this set of leaders, it might not work for the next set of leaders." Asked about Rice's stepped up public criticism of late of Israeli construction in east Jerusalem and some of the settlements, Ros-Lehtinen challenged the theory that the settlement issue was what was holding up peace. "I just think it's a fabricated issue," she said. "To nitpick about a hamlet of a few houses and say that it is up to Israel to remove those because those are an impediment to peace, I think that gives a free pass to Abbas and Fatah and Hamas and the whole crew." Ros-Lehtinen said that were all the settlements razed to the ground tomorrow, "there would be another issue that Abbas would bring up, or Hamas, because I don't think Israel has a true partner for peace." Which, she explained, is why this is such a tough nut to crack. But there are other areas that needed attention, and she felt that Rice should be more intensely involved with them - such as Iran . Ros-Lehtinen said she did not believe the Bush administration would take military action to stop Teheran's nuclear program in the waning months of the Bush presidency. "That is not a view shared by everyone," she said. "Some people truly believe there is a buildup now toward a war in Iran. I don't see it, but [that perception] is why it is becoming a little bit harder for us in Congress to pass legislation having tougher sanctions on Iran, because there is an element in Congress that says, 'You can hear the war drums beating, this will be a build up toward war in Iran,' and they don't want that." Ros-Lehtinen said the available tools to use against Iran were very limited - diplomacy, war and sanctions. Diplomacy is out of the question, she said, because the US did not want diplomatic relations with "a terrorist state like Iran, because they are not to be trusted. "We don't want to go to war, so one of the things we can do is apply more economic pressure, because without money these countries can't survive, and we have already seen the positive impact our sanctions policy has had against Iran." She said that rather than pushing the Annapolis process so hard, a better use of Rice's and the administration's time would be spent getting "our European partners, Russia and China to not be economic life lines to Iran." While Ros-Lehtinen acknowledged that the US could not force those countries into action, she said it did have a great deal of unused leverage. "The US is still a powerful country, we have a lot for trade with these countries, and can make it very clear that this issue [ Iran ] is important to us," she said. "Just as Secretary Rice has made it very clear to everyone living in this neighborhood that the Middle East process is important to her - 21 visits - how many times have high officials talked to China and Russia and really told them, 21 times, that this is our goal, this is what we want." Beyond that, she said, the US has not even implemented its own sanctions legislation inside the US. "Not one US company, or any other company, has been fined on charges of violating the Iran sanctions," she said. And that, she maintained, is not because those companies were not doing business with Iran, but rather because they were using subsidiaries to bypass the sanctions, and the US was not actively pursuing the issue. "We do very little with the legislation that we passed," she said. "There is a lot more pressure we can apply. All you have to do is present one case against one company, and even if that is thrown out of court it shines the light on that practice. Ros-Lehtinen, who was a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq and whose stepson and daughter-in-law served there as US Marine Corps officers, skirted the question of whether she would support US military action on Iran by saying that she did not "deal with hypotheticals." Nevertheless, asked if she felt the world expected Israel to take military action, she said, "I think the international community hopes that Israel takes action if they are convince that Iran is a true danger." She, for one, said she didn't believe Israel would have to stand alone against Iran. "On the Iranian issue I believe the US will stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel. We may need to verbally castigate a country like Israel every once in a while if they take out a facility like in Syria, but we are a better world because you did that, and Israel has done it before." Comments such as these, from a leading legislator, would obviously be enough to have Ros-Lehtinen placed on the side of the column that people such as anti-Israel-lobby lobbyists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer would say are hijacking US foreign policy to serve Israeli interests. Ros-Lehtinen brushed aside those criticisms. "The US backs Israel because Israel is a free society, and we want to help all free, open, democratic pluralistic societies," she said. "America is out to safeguard America 's interest and we believe that safeguarding Israel is in America's interests. We do not believe Hamas is in our interest, or that helping Hizbullah or any other proxy of Iran and Syria are in the interests of the US." By contrast, she characterized Israel as "one of the freest civil societies we have in the world, and certainly in the neighborhood. You have a flourishing free media here that skewers politicians on a whim. You have a multiparty system where people are free to start their own party with just a handful of people. That you can dissent from the government without a fear of retaliation is a sign of free society. You go just a few miles from Israel's borders and you won't find that true. We want to help free democratic, pluralistic societies, and certainly Israel is one of the best examples in the world of those goals." As to those who argue that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians indicates that is not as free a society as it portrays itself, Ros-Lehtinen countered that the Palestinian leadership has "done a good job of suppressing its own people. When Israel has given the opportunity to the Palestinians to rule themselves, what we have seen is that it has become a breeding ground for terrorists. It is the Palestinian leadership that should be held to a higher standard by the Palestinian people themselves, and not give the Palestinian leadership a free pass, and keep blaming Israel for its own problems. How long will they use Israel as a scapegoat?" Ros-Lehtinen, who is supporting John McCain in the next election, diplomatically bypassed the question as to whether Israel had anything to worry about with the departure of the Bush administration and the arrival of a new one. The US Congress "stands with Israel and will do what we can to help it defend itself no matter who the US president will be." Pressed, however, if there were any reasons for Israel to worry about an Obama presidency, she replied, "I prefer John McCain. I think his record on supporting Israel is clear for many years. He understands this area, understands the problems, and I don't think he will try to force Israel to make concessions that Israel is unwilling to make, unless we see that it is in our best interest." But Ros-Lehtinen is not only watching the presidential race. She, like all other US congressmen, is involved in a congressional race of her own this year, one in which the Democratic candidate, Annette Taddeo, is both Hispanic and a convert to Judaism, something that some pundits are saying could siphon off some Jewish voters and make this race closer than expected. Ros-Lehtinen, who has run against Jewish opponents in the past, predictably said she is not overly concerned. "I run my own race, and I could have Santa Claus or Scrooge running against me, and I would run my race based on my record," she said. "I run on my record no matter who the opponent is."