WASHINGTON – Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fl.), who was re-elected last month to chair the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism, laid out his agenda for 2021, in conversation with The Jerusalem Post.
Addressing the threat of nuclear arms in Iran, and the US-Israel relationship, is to be expected under the Biden administration, he said.
“American leadership in the world is critical ... and that means assuring our partners and alerting our adversaries that America again intends to play a major role in international affairs,” said Deutch. “We also want to be clear that we will stand firmly with our partners, that we will support Israel, that we will build on the Abraham Accords. We will look for ways to encourage greater energy cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean, and we will engage with our partners in the Gulf.”
The State Department said several times that before engaging with the Iranians, they would reach out to members of Congress to consult with them. Have they consulted you already?
“I have had conversations with the administration, and I was glad to hear the administration’s view that the JCPOA needs to be strengthened and lengthened, and that diplomacy is going to be key to achieve that. I think we have to wait and give the administration the opportunity to lay out exactly how it perceives the process that will permit that to happen. That’s something that we will consult with Congress about. And as I said, they’ve been clear that we consult with our allies abroad as well.”
You did not support the original nuclear agreement. What kind of agreement would you be willing to back?
“I did not support the original JCPOA; I also did not support withdrawing from it because I anticipated, as I think should have been obvious, that by withdrawing we were withdrawing American leadership and [as] those sanctions have increased, so, too, has Iran’s activity toward the pursuit of nuclear weapons. We have to work to address that.
“Conversations took place between our national security adviser and his Israeli counterpart; with our secretary of state and the Israeli minister of Foreign Affairs. The new administration has jumped right into serious conversation and ongoing conversations with our Israeli allies about the critical issues of the region.
“We share the same goal, which is an agreement that is reached diplomatically rather than militarily, that addresses some of the concerns of the original JCPOA, and that brings our allies into the conversations that we’ve focused on Iran’s nuclear program, as well as its malign activities in the region, their missile program, and the ongoing violation of human rights of Iranian people at home.”
Last month a group of 150 Democrats sent a letter to Biden calling on him to rejoin the JCPOA, and this week a group of 119 Republicans sent him a letter calling on him not to do so. Given the hyper-partisan reality in Washington, is there anything that can be done in a bipartisan way?
“It was in the last Congress that we condemned the BDS movement. It passed overwhelmingly 398 to 17. It was in the last Congress that we passed my legislation to strengthen the US-Israel relationship and put the terms of the [2016 Memorandum of Understanding] into a statute. For the first time that passed unanimously in the House of Representatives. So I think that there is strong bipartisan support that will continue. Just as the Democratic House worked with our Republican colleagues in the House during a Republican administration to advance the US-Israel relationship, I would certainly hope and expect that my Republican friends in the House will work with us to strengthen US-Israel relationship during this Democratic administration.”
We know that Biden has yet to call Netanyahu. When do you expect such a call to take place?
“They spoke after the election. I don’t think that you can read too much into the fact that the president hasn’t had this specific conversation. Obviously, in the short time he’s been president he’s also trying to get the pandemic under control. I have no doubt that he will have another conversation with the prime minister. I have no doubt that will be a good conversation like the dozens, probably hundreds, of times that then-vice president Biden and senator Biden has spoken to the prime minister.”
Last week Biden delivered his first foreign policy speech since taking office, but he barely mentioned the Middle East. Do you feel like the region is “taking the back seat” in the administration’s priorities?
“I know that high-level conversations have taken place [with Israel] because I’ve spoken with American officials who have engaged in them.
“Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons is front and center. And that’s going to be a critical issue going forward. And the administration has made clear how it intends to go forward. The president said that the US won’t lift sanctions until Iran halts its uranium enrichment.
“The most senior officials in the administration have been consistently clear that the JCPOA needs to be lengthened and strengthened. There will be consultations on how to achieve that. Diplomacy is going to be critical here, but I think the start has been positive. I would point to the strong statement from the State Department about the terrible decision of the ICC.
“I don’t think we characterize the way things are going to go based on one speech, I think to the contrary – the administration has consistently consulted closely with Israel and with our allies on Iran and on all of the issues in the region.”
How do you see the future of the Abraham Accords? Do you see any country that could be next? Are you going to be involved in that?
“I have had conversations with ambassadors from throughout the region. Those who have joined the Abraham Accords have spoken with me about the importance of it, and those who have not certainly heard from me very clearly why I think this will be an important opportunity for their country and for the region. So I’m not going to guess who’s going to come next. Congress has a role to play here in highlighting what’s being done, and in engaging with the countries in the region and the new Abraham fund to ensure that more countries will choose to join, and hopefully quickly.”
How do you anticipate that the incoming administration will be engaged regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
“We’ve seen each of the last few administrations make this a central focus. I think it’s clear that this is not going to be the driving issue at the outset of this administration, but there are steps we can take and that are important for us to take. I think it’s important to rebuild trust in the relationship.
“It’s not productive if the United States isn’t talking to the Palestinians. And to that end, the administration will re-engage in establishing those communications.
“I think in starting, the Biden administration taking smaller steps that might yield significant results over time is the way to build trust and hopefully move toward a situation where we will get closer to the two-state solution.
“The only way to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians is through direct negotiations. And there is a lot of work that needs to be done to get to the place where both sides feel comfortable engaging in those negotiations. We should work toward that perhaps rather than a whole plan to try to end the conflict. I think it makes sense to focus on the smaller steps that yield positive results and increase trust, while at the same time focusing on the immediate threat to the region. I also think that restarting humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians is going to be important.”
Lastly, what do you think about the administration’s decision to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council?
“I support the administration’s position here, but let me be clear: it is not my position, nor is it the position of the administration, that the Human Rights Council, in its decision to admit as members countries which have little respect for the human rights of their citizens, may obsess endlessly over Israel at the exclusion of human rights crises in so many places throughout the world. That’s not what I support – to the contrary. I believe that it needs to change.
“Our new UN ambassador has made clear, she looks forward to standing stronger with Israel at the UN Human Rights Council. There are two ways to look at this. There is one way that says we should throw up our hands and walk away because we’re frustrated with what we’ve seen before, or we commit to be at the table, banging on the table if we need to, to stand up for human rights, stand up against those countries which seek to demonize Israel and to stand up for the values that we share. And I think it’s better to be at the table.