Senators knock US policy on ME conflict

Sen. Richard Lugar warns that American support for Israel and PA could be cut.

john kerry 311 (photo credit: AP)
john kerry 311
(photo credit: AP)
WASHINGTON – Days before US Vice President Joe Biden starts his firsttrip to Israel as vice president on Monday, senators and expertwitnesses criticized the Obama administration for missteps on theIsraeli-Palestinian peace process during a hearing Thursday.
Thesenators also took Israel to task at times during the hearing on makingprogress toward Middle East peace, with Foreign Relations CommitteeChairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) calling for improvements in“the dire conditions in Gaza,” terming it “a great disappointment thatso little has been rebuilt” following the war there a year ago. Heurged the import of more reconstruction materials, some of the manyitems Israel has barred in blockading the crossings.
Inaddition, ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) raised the specterof reducing American support for Israel and the Palestinian Authorityif they don’t comply with US demands on the peace process. Both partiesreceive generous American aid packages, though Lugar did not mentionthese monies in his comments.
“The consequences might be thatyou really don’t receive our support – for a while you’re on your own.Take it or leave it,” he suggested as one possible scenario, notingthat many would dismiss such an action because of the close US-Israelrelationship and the pivotal view of the Palestinians in the MiddleEast.
But, he warned, “The consequences of a failure to moveahead have to be evident at some point. Somebody has to worry aboutthis.”
The Palestinians were also not immune to castigationsfrom Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania). He contended that “the Israelishave shown, certainly in the last year, that they’ve been willing tomake real concessions. I can’t say the same, in my judgment, about thePalestinians. I think there’s been a real reluctance or even refusal toengage in real negotiations.”
But most of the criticism voicedThursday focused on the US approach toward peace-making in the region.“Because of the Goldstone Report and the way in which the settlementissue was handled, publicly hanging [PA] President [Mahmoud] Abbas outto have an expectation that that was the standard and then going backfrom it, left him weakened,” Kerry said, referring to two Obamaadministration policies though he didn’t mention the US by name.
Inthe case of the Goldstone Report, the US pressured Abbas to withdrawsupport from the UN document alleging Israeli war crimes, sparkingcriticism from his Palestinian constituents; in the case of thesettlements, the US called for a total settlement freeze from Israelthat Abbas accordingly made a precondition for talks, though Israel hasonly agreed to a partial moratorium.
Kerry said the result ofthis dynamic was the need for “a way to get him back,” something theArab League’s endorsement of proximity talks on Wednesday provided. Atthe same time, Kerry and several others at the hearing characterizedindirect talks as an unsatisfactory situation. “Obviously there’sdisappointment – it’s almost pre-Madrid in terms of having proximitytalks,” Kerry said of a period 20 years ago when Israelis andPalestinians weren’t talking directly.
Biden’s trip to Israeland the PA next week is likely to see the official endorsement ofholding indirect talks after more than a year of American efforts toget discussions started.
Still, the launching of thesenegotiations are not seen as the primary focus of his trip, which willcoincide with another visit by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell,the primary interlocutor in trying to get the negotiations off theground.
Instead, Biden is expected to delve most deeply into theIranian situation in his meeting with top Israeli leaders. He spent anhour meeting with Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren at theWhite House on Tuesday in preparation for the trip.
Biden isalso going to meet with Israeli business leaders and deliver publicaddresses in Tel Aviv and likely Haifa in a bid at outreach to theIsraeli people.
An Israeli official described Oren’s meeting as“warm and friendly,” in which Biden “expressed his enthusiasm for goingto Israel.” He also noted that “the administration is aware of thefeelings of Israeli public opinion, and therefore the administration isaware that it needs to address Israeli public opinion and itsleadership, not only the Muslim world.”
Israelis have expressed frustration with the Obama administrationand a feeling that the White House has been more attentive to theMuslim world and devoted more effort to Muslim outreach, particularlywith President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last June.
“TheObama administration’s outreach to the Muslim world and to Israel isnot a zero-sum game,” Oren said in a statement Thursday. “Just asIsrael appreciates President Obama’s assertion of Israel’s legitimacyin the heart of the Muslim world, so, too, does Israel welcome VicePresident Biden’s arrival in Israel with a message of unqualifiedcommitment, admiration and friendship.”