US House Majority leader Steny Hoyer praised Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, called for the Palestinian Authority to drop any preconditions to negotiations, and said that Congress differentiated between building in east Jerusalem and in the West Bank, during an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Monday. Hoyer, currently in the country leading a delegation of 29 Democratic legislators, also said the rhetoric coming out of the Fatah General Assembly in Bethlehem was "unfortunate." The delegation, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charitable organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, arrived on Sunday evening and met Monday with President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and US security coordinator Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton. Lieberman told the group that the continued control of Gaza by Hamas, along with the rhetoric coming out of the Fatah conference in Bethlehem, essentially buried chances of peace for the near future. "I think that kind of pessimism, while perhaps realistic, is not helpful to moving the ball forward," Hoyer said, adding that he viewed the Fatah conference as PA President Mahmoud Abbas's effort to charge up the faithful and reenergize his followers. Still, Hoyer said he thought "some of the rhetoric was very unfortunate in the sense that it re-instilled a sense of confrontation and resistance, instead of being more positive and talking about what steps were needed to move forward." Hoyer, who will meet with Abbas on Wednesday, noted that Abbas himself had said recently that the situation in the West Bank was much improved. "I think that had there been a more positive tone to the conference, it would have been more helpful," he said. "As General Dayton said, it is a political convention. He said it was a 'convention of politicians,' so he didn't put a lot of stock in the words." At the same time, Hoyer said one of his messages to Abbas would be that he needed to change the rhetoric. Another message would be that he drop preconditions for starting negotiations with the Netanyahu government. Abbas has said that Israel must freeze settlement construction before he will sit down with the prime minister. Hoyer, an important ally of US President Barack Obama on Capitol Hill, said this was a mistake and that just as Abbas had not had preconditions for talks with former prime minister Ehud Olmert, he should not have any preconditions now, either. "It is time for him to reach for peace, without preconditions," Hoyer said. Citing Netanyahu's acceptance of a two-state solution, as well as the removal of all but 14 roadblocks in the West Bank, Hoyer said, "There have been some very positive things that have happened under Netanyahu, and I think that Abbas ought to take the opportunity to engage with Netanyahu without preconditions. Both peoples need and want peace; their leaders ought to facilitate that." The powerful Maryland Democrat said he was "not surprised" and could "understand" the perception in Israel that Obama had been too tough on Israel over the settlements. At the same time, Hoyer - a staunch Israel supporter in the House - said he felt Obama was "very committed to Israel. I think he is very committed to its security and sovereignty, and to its being protected in terms of any agreement it would make. He is also very committed to Israel making its own decision regarding what actions it will take vis-Ã -vis an agreement." Asked if he thought Obama had "gone overboard" on the settlement issue, Hoyer sidestepped, saying it was a mistake to dwell on the settlements and to make settlement construction the key issue, when it was not. This issue was blown out of proportion because it was an issue where the US and Israel disagreed, he said, and it was natural for the disagreements to attract most of the attention. Hoyer said that given the changes on the ground since 1967, he believed that most people in the US - including the Obama administration - understood that a return to those boundaries was not realistic. According to Hoyer, there was a difference in how Congress viewed the West Bank and Jerusalem; he felt that there was more acceptance of Jewish construction in east Jerusalem than in the settlements in the West Bank. "I think there is a significant difference between what we are talking about in the West Bank and Jerusalem itself, which is an integrated city; which is a whole," he said. "My view is that it will remain whole, and therefore - I don't want to anticipate the endgame - but I don't think the partitioning of Jerusalem is a reasonable outcome. I don't think it will happen." Asked whether - in light of a recent New York Post poll showing that Jewish Democrats agreed with the Israeli position and disagreed with Obama on issues such as a Palestinian state, settlement construction and trading land for peace - he was concerned that Obama could lose his Jewish base of support, Hoyer said this depended on what the US president was able to achieve. "I think the Jewish community in America will make judgments not solely on Israel, but that this will be a critical part of their judgments, and I think they will make it on the basis of results," he said. "I believe that ultimately if Obama accomplishes progress in the next three years and four months, that the Jewish community will make its judgment on that. If, on the other hand, they believe that Obama's policies had a negative impact on Israel, he will certainly lose some, maybe much, of his support. But it is much too early to make that kind of judgment." The House majority leader also disagreed with the recent controversial cable critical of the government, written by Boston's Israel Consul-General Nadav Tamir, who concluded that support for Israel among the American public was being eroded by disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington. "I don't see that," he said. "I believe there is a fundamental understanding in the US of the character of Israel and its values, and how these values replicate ours. I think there is an understanding of how important an ally Israel is, and how important it is to have a democracy survive and succeed in a sea of authoritarianism." Congress represents the people, and there has been no erosion of support in the Congress for Israel, Hoyer said. He pointed to a letter signed by 368 members of the 435-seat House of Representatives, sent to Obama in May, expressing commitment to Israel and saying the US needed to let Israel make its own decisions, and to back those decisions. "We had no trouble getting those signatures," he said. "I think that is reflective of members of Congress reflecting the views of their constituency."