JERUSALEM - Republican congressmen visiting Israel criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a disproportionate emphasis on stopping construction in Israeli settlements and its lack of vigilance in preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.
“We’re concerned with what the White House is signaling of late,” Eric Cantor, R-Va, told reporters on the fifth day of the visit. The minority whip in the House of Representatives emphasized the “existential threat that Iran poses” to the region and to the United States. Cantor said he was troubled by an unbalanced emphasis of the American administration on freezing Jewish settlement construction rather than attempting to extract meaningful commitments from the Palestinians and Arab states.
Cantor led a delegation of 25 Republican congressmen and women on the weeklong trip, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, an organization affiliated with the influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Next week, some 30 Democrats from Congress will make a similar visit to the region.
The delegation stressed their own unmitigated support for Israel and the danger of any acquisition by Iran of nuclear weapons, an issue strongly echoed by Israeli leaders.
“I don’t believe the president of the United States fully comprehends this threat of Iran (acquiring) nuclear weapons and the threat to the stability of this region,” said Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado. Coffman, who has stated in the past that radical Islamic elements are the cause for destabilizing the Middle East, said President Barack Obama’s approach to Middle East peace “is in error in a very big way.” “Many outside the State of Israel see the Arab-Israeli conflict as a centerpiece to the Muslim conflict of the West - that is absolutely wrong,” he said after the news conference. “The broader conflict has nothing to do with Israel.”
The congressional delegation met with Israeli leaders as well as with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who they said wavered when pressed to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, one of Israel’s stipulations for a peace agreement. The delegation also expressed outrage that Palestinians named streets in the West Bank and Gaza after terrorists. “If there is an unwillingness on the part of so-called moderate Palestinians ... it makes it very difficult” to reach a peace agreement, Cantor said. Cantor also referred to a 2004 letter by former President George W. Bush to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in which the U.S. condones growth and permanence in major settlement blocs. The Obama camp has said it is not bound to “understandings,” including this letter, between the Israeli governments and prior administrations.
“The Bush letter indicates we could never see Israel turn back to 1967 lines,” said Cantor, who supports the letter. “Those communities (the settlements) will never be separated from Israel.” Meanwhile, the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported today that American Middle East envoy George Mitchell has asked Israel for a one-year freeze on West Bank settlement construction in order to elicit concessions from Arab countries. Israel has already agreed to suspend building in settlements for six months. The congressmen’s tour has involved meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials, briefings and visits to settlements and Sderot, the city on the Gaza border bombarded in the last eight years by Palestinians rocket attacks.
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