President says Israel can't be expected to withdraw from W. Bank while mortars threaten its citizens.
By GREER FAY CASHMANPublished: MAY 24, 2009 23:04Advertisement
Despite the pleasantries and the politeness, there was hard talk on Sunday between a US congressional delegation led by Gary Ackerman, (D-NY), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee panel on the Middle East, and President Shimon Peres.
Tired of being asked for concessions, Peres told his guests that the side making concessions was Israel, which was not getting anything in return from the Palestinians other than the rockets and mortar shells being fired from Gaza.
After the Gaza experience, Israel could not be expected to withdraw from Judea and Samaria while rockets continued to threaten its citizens, he said.
The visiting delegation, which had previously met with Lebanese, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders, expressed concern about the level and continuation of humanitarian aid going into Gaza, and was also troubled by the ongoing existence of illegal Israeli outposts in the West Bank.
Ackerman, who is Jewish, introduced Christian and Muslim members of the delegation to Peres, who had met some of them before.
Noting that he had been coming to Israel since 1983, Ackerman observed that he had never come without an Israeli leader telling him that he had come at an interesting time. As far as he could tell, the situation has become "more challenging" rather than less.
"Now, with the constant burden of trying to make peace with the Palestinians, you have the burden of the Iran nuclear weapon program," he said, and asked how Israel could cope with both problems at the same time.
Peres replied that as great as the dangers were, there were also opportunities. In building a nuclear bomb, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had incurred the displeasure of the Arab world, because it was clear that he wanted to rule the Middle East, "and none of the Arab countries want to be subjected," the president said.
A lot of people think that Israel has lost the sympathy of the world, "but we have more sympathy in an ever changing world," Peres said.
He cited India and China as supporters of Israel, and emphasized that "for the first time, the majority of Arabs see Israel not as the problem but as the solution."
Christians, he continued, were worried about Muslim extremism in the Middle East. Pope Benedict XVI, during his recent visit to Israel, expressed concern over the disappearance of the Christian majority from Bethlehem, and of the harassment suffered by Christians in other parts of the Arab world.
Peres quoted the pontiff as saying that differences today were not so much between Church and state as between religion and terror.
With regard to the Palestinians, the president said that this was a critical period in which the peace process must be put back on track.
The delegation agreed with this but not entirely with Peres's assessment of a changing Middle East. The Arab leaders with whom the delegation had met, while concerned about the nuclear threat, were more concerned about the implementation of the Arab peace initiative where Israel would reach an accord not only with the Palestinians, but with the overwhelming majority of Arab states. But such an accord could not be reached as far as the Arabs concerned, without Israel making substantial territorial concessions, the congressmen said.
var cont = `Sign up for The Jerusalem Post Premium Plus for just $5
Upgrade your reading experience with an ad-free environment and exclusive content