US diplomat downplays Mideast forum

Tom Lantos says West Bank checkpoint removal premature.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Veteran US Congressman Tom Lantos warned Sunday that the premature removal of West Bank checkpoints would lead to violence as long as the Palestinian Authority lacked the capability to secure the area. "The Palestinian Authority is not capable of providing security at this stage," he told journalists Sunday in Jerusalem as he wrapped up a short visit to the region. He said he understood that after meeting with PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas last week in Jericho he would consider dismantling some West Bank checkpoints. Olmert has since asked the Defense Ministry to study the matter. But Lantos, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the time was not ripe for such a move. "The premature removal of these checkpoints is a guarantee of violence and terrorism erupting," he said. "No one who recommends a premature dismantling is interested in peace in this region." Until the checkpoints can be taken down safely, Israel should treat the Palestinians who pass through them with respect, he added. Lantos said the US and "other friends will do our utmost over whatever period it takes to make the Palestinian Authority stand up and state on the basis of fact that they are fully capable of providing security for the citizens of Israel." "Only a Palestinian government that is capable of doing so [providing security] is a partner for peace," he added. Lantos called on a number of countries to take stronger measures in the pursuit of peace. "Having conquered Gaza, Hamas is determined to conquer the West Bank, and to destroy Israel," He said. "Arms and funds are pouring in through the tunnels on the Egyptian-Gaza border. It is long overdue that the vast Egyptian army take the necessary steps to stop this outrageous flow perpetrated by the merchant of death." Lantos said other Arab countries could offer economic assistance to Palestinians who are living in poverty. He said he planned to address the matter during an upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia. Lantos said Saudi Arabian leaders should talk with Israel if they wanted to be serious actors in the peace process. "The time is long overdue for the Saudis to recognize that if there is to be peace in this region, they and the Israeli leadership must meet face to face many times to move this difficult process forward," he said. Lantos doubted whether US President George W. Bush's planned international summit would yield significant results. "We must not exaggerate any expectations with respect to that meeting," he said. "This is one of many conferences that will be held over many years to move the process forward. While I understand that some people in the administration would like to see great achievements in the next few months, great achievements will not be forthcoming." Lantos said he understood there was a push to solve the conflict before Bush left office in 2008, but did not believe it was possible. The Middle East, he said, doesn't move according to the timetable set by US elections. Lantos said his top legislative priority was to tighten the economic noose around Iran by upgrading sanctions and proposing legislation that would allow pension funds and private organizations to divest from Iran. He said he had worked on a program called the nuclear fuel bank, which would provide countries like Iran with unlimited nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes in a way that would not allow for the development of nuclear weapons. He said he would next be heading to Vienna to discuss this proposal with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Lantos said more moderate countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, were also aware of the growing Iranian threat. During his last visit to Saudi Arabia, he said, he was encouraged to find that the "Saudis clearly understand that the threat is not Israel but Iran." Lantos said he would carefully study the US's proposed $20 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. "It is self evident that the arms package will need to be of such a nature that it does not represent a threat to the State of Israel," he said, "while at the same time recognizing the legitimate need of the Saudis to prepare against the rising military might of Iran." Lantos said the US proposal to give Israel $30b. in a 10-year military package was "unprecedented in scope," and would guarantee "the continuance of Israel's qualitative military edge in the region" against a "sickening array of bloodthirsty enemies," including the current regime in Iran. Lantos said he would want to engage in dialogue with Iran in hopes of deterring it from its pursuit of nuclear weapons. He said for years his requests for a visa to Iran had been rejected. Lantos said he believed in dialogue with Syria. Over the objections of Bush, he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently traveled to Syria to meet with President Bashar Assad. Syria, Lantos said, must understand that "Israel has no intention of a military nature involving Syria. If it takes a personal visit by me to sit and explain this to [Assad], I intend to do so." During his visit to Israel, Lantos met with Olmert, President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.