Tags: Congress | Obama | Mideast | policy

Senators Chide Obama on Failed Mideast Policy

Friday, 05 March 2010 10:29 AM

WASHINGTON – Days before US Vice President Joe Biden starts his first trip to Israel as vice president on Monday, senators and expert witnesses criticized the Obama administration for missteps on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process during a hearing Thursday.

The senators also took Israel to task at times during the hearing on making progress toward Middle East peace, with Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) calling for improvements in “the dire conditions in Gaza,” terming it “a great disappointment that so little has been rebuilt” following the war there a year ago. He urged the import of more reconstruction materials, some of the many items Israel has barred in blockading the crossings.

In addition, ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) raised the specter of reducing American support for Israel and the Palestinian Authority if they don’t comply with US demands on the peace process. Both parties receive generous American aid packages, though Lugar did not mention these monies in his comments.

“The consequences might be that you 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, noting that many would dismiss such an action because of the close US-Israel relationship and the pivotal view of the Palestinians in the Middle East.

But, he warned, “The consequences of a failure to move ahead have to be evident at some point. Somebody has to worry about this.”

The Palestinians were also not immune to castigations from Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania). He contended that “the Israelis have shown, certainly in the last year, that they’ve been willing to make real concessions. I can’t say the same, in my judgment, about the Palestinians. I think there’s been a real reluctance or even refusal to engage in real negotiations.”

But most of the criticism voiced Thursday focused on the US approach toward peace-making in the region. “Because of the Goldstone Report and the way in which the settlement issue was handled, publicly hanging [PA] President [Mahmoud] Abbas out to have an expectation that that was the standard and then going back from it, left him weakened,” Kerry said, referring to two Obama administration policies though he didn’t mention the US by name.

In the case of the Goldstone Report, the US pressured Abbas to withdraw support from the UN document alleging Israeli war crimes, sparking criticism from his Palestinian constituents; in the case of the settlements, the US called for a total settlement freeze from Israel that Abbas accordingly made a precondition for talks, though Israel has only agreed to a partial moratorium.

Kerry said the result of this dynamic was the need for “a way to get him back,” something the Arab League’s endorsement of proximity talks on Wednesday provided. At the same time, Kerry and several others at the hearing characterized indirect talks as an unsatisfactory situation. “Obviously there’s disappointment – it’s almost pre-Madrid in terms of having proximity talks,” Kerry said of a period 20 years ago when Israelis and Palestinians weren’t talking directly.

Biden’s trip to Israel and the PA next week is likely to see the official endorsement of holding indirect talks after more than a year of American efforts to get discussions started.

Still, the launching of these negotiations are not seen as the primary focus of his trip, which will coincide with another visit by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, the primary interlocutor in trying to get the negotiations off the ground.

Instead, Biden is expected to delve most deeply into the Iranian situation in his meeting with top Israeli leaders. He spent an hour meeting with Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren at the White House on Tuesday in preparation for the trip.

Biden is also going to meet with Israeli business leaders and deliver public addresses in Tel Aviv and likely Haifa in a bid at outreach to the Israeli people.

An Israeli official described Oren’s meeting as “warm and friendly,” in which Biden “expressed his enthusiasm for going to Israel.” He also noted that “the administration is aware of the feelings of Israeli public opinion, and therefore the administration is aware that it needs to address Israeli public opinion and its leadership, not only the Muslim world.”

Israelis have expressed frustration with the Obama administration and a feeling that the White House has been more attentive to the Muslim world and devoted more effort to Muslim outreach, particularly with President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last June.

“The Obama administration’s outreach to the Muslim world and to Israel is not a zero-sum game,” Oren said in a statement Thursday. “Just as Israel appreciates President Obama’s assertion of Israel’s legitimacy in the heart of the Muslim world, so, too, does Israel welcome Vice President Biden’s arrival in Israel with a message of unqualified commitment, admiration and friendship.”

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Friday, 05 March 2010 10:29 AM
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