Waxman: Diagnosis of problem must come before solution

Longtime liberal stalwart in Congress and Obama ally does not think settlements are the central issue to peace talks and agrees with Netanyahu that Palestinians do not want to live with Jews.

Henry Waxman 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Henry Waxman 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Silver-haired US Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer stood at the podium at a Jerusalem press conference Wednesday, flanked by a veritable Benetton display of 36 Congressional colleagues of different color, creed and accents from throughout the US.
The highly influential Maryland congressman – whose job as whip is to ensure party discipline – said this was his “bar mitzva” trip to Israel, the 13th time he has been here since 1976. Not so his colleagues, 31 of them freshman, half of whom have never before been to the country.
One exception, however, was Henry Waxman (D-California), standing in the front row of the class picture-type array surrounding Hoyer. Waxman, 74, has spent more than half his life in Congress, representing LA’s affluent, liberal 30th district that includes Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Santa Monica and Calabasas. He was first elected in 1974, has been to Israel numerous times, and – in Congress six years longer than Hoyer – can take some prerogatives with the whip.
One such prerogative was to say “Not a central issue,” when a journalist from a Japanese television network asked the final question at a press conference held just after the group returned from Ramallah and a meeting with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. The group is on a week-long trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charitable organization affiliated with the American- Israel Public Affairs Committee. Next week, a Republican delegation of 26 congressmen is to arrive.
“Do you have any plan to visit settlements in the West Bank?” the journalist asked Hoyer. “If so, which one are you visiting? And if not, why are you not visiting – this is the central issue of the resumption of peace talks.”
 As Hoyer began to answer, Waxman said to him in a voice audible to the rest of the room: “It is not the central issue.”
“Mr. Waxman points out that this is not the central issue,” Hoyer said, after taking note. “He is absolutely right. Your premise says it is the central issue; it is not the central issue. I do not accept your premise that it is the central issue.”
Most interesting in that exchange was that it was not a “reactionary,” Tea Party, evangelical conservative who shot down what has become accepted as axiomatic – that the settlements ARE the central issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict – but rather Waxman.
Waxman is a Congressional liberal stalwart, a man whose entry in Wikipedia lists him as “one of the most influential liberal members of Congress” and who Washington’s National Journal last year listed as the 26th most liberal member of the 435-member House of Representatives.
Collared afterward by a disbelieving freelance journalist who asked what issue could possibly be more central in the talks than settlements, Waxman – nonplussed – replied: “Boundaries, security, the recognition of the rights of the Jewish people to have their country recognized as a Jewish country.”
Settlements, he said, were important and would have to be discussed, but, he added, “in previous negotiations the boundaries always envisioned that the settlements blocks will become part of Israel.”
And this from a leading liberal member of Congress.
Granted, Waxman is a Jew, but this point of view would be torn apart by many other liberal American Jews who – like the Japanese journalist – see the settlements as the be-all and end-all of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
After the press conference, Waxman – in an interview with The Jerusalem Post – discussed a bit of what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the group when he met with them for nearly two hours on Monday.
(The group was also supposed to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, but that was canceled at the last minute because Abbas went to Saudi Arabia – for what Waxman indicated were consultations before the beginning of negotiations with Israel on Wednesday).
Netanyahu, Waxman said, pointed out “what is the underlying problem, why it [the conflict] has gone on for all those years.” Before you find a solution, Waxman said, you better get the right diagnosis.
“And the diagnosis he gave, which I though was correct, was that the Palestinians do not want to live with Jewish people,” he said. “This was the reason that they wanted to block immigration into Mandatory Palestine before there was Israel, the reason they didn’t want to accept a partition that would have given them an Arab state. It is still the same issue.”
The congressman did not reference Abbas’s statement in Cairo last week that there would not be one Israeli – either soldier or citizen – allowed in a future Palestinian state.
Flowing naturally from Waxman’s repudiation of the idea that the settlements were the conflict’s “central issue,” was his “disappointment” at the European Union’s recent publication of settlement guidelines – demanding Israel sign a territorial clause reneging claims to the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Golan before entering in any future agreement with the EU, and forbidding any dealing with Israeli entities over the Green Line.
“I think that it is real chutzpah of the EU, to think that they could decide the borders,” he said. “I looked at it as especially galling at a time when we were calling on the EU to put Hezbollah on the terrorist list.”
Reminded that the EU has since blacklisted Hezbollah’s military wing, Waxman said they did not do that until after the settlement guidelines were published, and that the EU artificially distinguished between Hezbollah’s “military” and “political” wings.
“I don’t know that a distinction like that could be made. It seems to me that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization,” he said.
“There may be members of Hezbollah in Lebanon’s government, but that doesn’t make them any less terrorist.”
WAXMAN, LIKE MANY, said he was initially “surprised” when US Secretary of State John Kerry began focusing so intently on Israel and the Palestinians, at a time when Syria is imploding and Egypt is tearing itself apart.
“The only thing that makes any sense to me is that this is a priority within the context of what is happening in the Middle East,” Waxman said. “If you look at an Iranian-Syrian- Hamas axis, one advantage of [Syrian President Bashar Assad] no longer being in control would be that that axis would be broken.
One of the things that allows Hamas to be viable is that nothing is happening on the Palestinian side.”
Asked whether, after speaking to both Netanyahu and Erekat, there was anything he heard that made him think that this time the diplomatic process might succeed where it failed before, Waxman said, “A lot of people look at the possibility of the other Arab states – especially the Saudis – pushing the Palestinians into some agreement so there can be a united effort vis-à-vis Iran.”
“Maybe realizing how easy it is to fail,” Waxman continued, “the two sides will look at the opportunities to succeed, if not on a grand scale, then at least a clear movement in the right direction.”
He said he felt the Saudis may well be pushing the Palestinians to move forward “because of the urgency of Iran.” In other words, the Iranian-Palestinian linkage, what has been dubbed Yitzhar for Bushair, has come back into the room, front and center.
Asked to spell out how the two issues were connected, Waxman said: “I think that if we had an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, it would be a lot easier to unite a broader range of the Arab world to focus attention not on the Palestinian grievance, but on the Iranian threat.” Waxman said then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin used that logic during a conversation they had just after the Oslo Accords. Rabin, according to Waxman, said that Iran and Iraq were Israel’s greatest existential threats, and being able to focus on those threats was one of the reasons – though not the exclusive one – why it was so pressing for him to try and resolve the Palestinian issue.
Regarding Iran, Waxman – among 400 other congressman who voted last week to increase sanctions on Iran despite the election of Hassan Rouhani – said he did not seen any difference in the US and Israeli positions on Iran.
“Diplomacy is obviously an option we want to pursue,” he said. “And hopefully we will succeed. We hope that we can resolve this issue. Time is running out, and neither the president of the United States nor the prime minister of Israel has taken military options off the table.”
Waxman said there were some in Congress who questioned the timing of the resolution, arguing that the new Iranian president should be “given a chance.” “I think we know enough,” Waxman said of Rouhani.
“He is not in control [of Iran’s nuclear policy], and that policy is clear, and we need to stand up to it.”
Waxman said it was important to send a message that the US was not willing to “wait forever” for Iran to give up its yearning for nuclear arms. .
News reports trumpeting huge differences between Obama and Netanyahu about Iran – as well as other issues – have largely faded away, and Waxman attributed that in large part to Obama’s visit to Israel in March.
Waxman, who The Washington Post website labeled an “energetic ally in Congress for the Obama administration,” said the complaints he heard in the past about Obama’s relationship with Israel have “disappeared.” “We don’t need leaders to like each other, because they don’t choose each other,” Waxman said.
“The leaders represent their peoples, but in terms of the people of the United States and the people of Israel, we have an unbreakable tie that President Obama reaffirmed.”
Obama did not undergo a “conversion” on Israel when he came in March, Waxman said.
“He has always been there. I think both sides recognized that it was in all our interests to have a better tone.”
But what the trip did do, he said, was “convince people that he gets it, he understands it, he is committed, and that the US-Israel relationship is stronger than ever.”