The past few months have seen unexpected developments in the Middle East, the continuing “Arab Awakening,” Egypt’s slide toward being controlled by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, Syria and Libya in revolt; it seemed as if for the first time in recent history the Israeli-Palestinian dispute represented the calmest place in this violence-prone area of the world.
That all changed in early May when the Palestinian Authority, run by the “moderate” terrorists of the Fatah party, agreed to reunite with the more overt terrorists of Hamas who rule over the Gaza Strip.
While this was happening, President Obama has been preparing for a major speech regarding Middle East Policy (tomorrow), a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (Friday) and an address to the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
The Palestinians on the other hand, have been politicking at the United Nations trying to ensure passage of a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood.
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This morning Politico carried an op-ed composed by two members of the House GOP leadership: Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), and Peter Roskam (R-Ill) Deputy Majority Whip and Co-Chair of Republican Israel Caucus.
The two Republicans pointed out the radical violent nature of Hamas describing it as a
..terrorist organization whose founding charter instructs, “The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews; until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him.”
They said that because of the unification agreement that would give Hamas governmental power within the Palestinian Authority, the United States should cut off the Authority’s financial aid.
The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement empowers Hamas terrorists and endangers Israel. The U.S. must use every tool in our diplomatic arsenal to make clear that we will not tolerate a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.
It is our duty, as leader of the free world, to do no less.
I had the opportunity to interview Congressman Roskam this morning. We discussed the Politico op-ed as well as other key issues regarding American foreign policy as it relates to Israel and the Middle East. Below is that interview, beginning with an overview of the situation provided by the Congressman.
Rep. Roskam: The urgency of this is difficult to overstate. All of these events are conflating. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the United States has an incredible role to play.
For those who historically have said Israel is our best friend in the region, and we have shared values of democracy, this is the time to stand with Israel and make it very clear that it’s the PA who have made this choice. It is the Palestinian Authority that has made the choice to put itself outside of the mainstream.
The current law says that the United States will not support terrorist organizations. When the Palestinian Authority makes an affirmative decision to put itself in a relationship with Hamas, it’s making a choice to put itself outside the category of those who receive financial support of the United States taxpayers.
I think it’s really that simple. And it is incredibly important, that when President Obama lays out his agenda tomorrow, he is clear. It is incredibly important that with the Prime Minister’s upcoming visit to the United States that we are clear the burden is on the Palestinian Authority. They have made their decision recognizing that they have put support from the United States in jeopardy, and there are consequences for their actions.
Jeff Dunetz: Well you certainly made that clear in the op-ed, but at times the administration hasn’t been as clear. For example, in his Cairo speech two years ago, the President seemed to have downplayed the role of Hamas terrorism. He reached his hand out to Hamas and it was eventually slapped away. Do you think President Obama “gets it”?
Rep. Roskam: The President has an opportunity tomorrow, to demonstrate that he gets it. It’s important for the administration to look at these past events since the Cairo speech, and understand that the world does not respond merely to speeches, the world responds to clear policy. That is why it is essential that the President lay out what we have put forward in the op-ed when he makes address tomorrow.
Jeff Dunetz: In the op-ed you mention the possible unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood resolution by the UN in September. I understand that the Administration has promised to veto the resolution should it get to a vote in the Security Council–but is there anything the United States can do to prevent it from getting that far?
Rep. Roskam: The United States can actively work against the roll call to prevent it. It is not enough, in my view, simply to veto it. The United States should be actively advocating against it. There is a role to play, and this is extremely important in the short, medium and long term because it is inextricably linked to the U.S. security interests for us to do that. So I believe the administration has a chance to weigh in, to whip the vote in the UN and literally work the roll call.
Jeff Dunetz: It seems that there is a different tone in the House this year. In the last Congress the only ones vocally standing up for Israel were people like Congressman Pence, Eric Cantor and you—members of the GOP Caucus. This year it seems, at least in my observation, that there is more bi-partisan, more Democrats are speaking out. Do you agree with that observation?
Rep. Roskam: I think what happened is–and now I am only speculating I cannot pretend to speak for Democrats in the House–but it looks like some of them are becoming increasingly disappointed in the past deference they paid to the administration and are recognizing that administration policy is now under-performing. They are becoming more vocal as a result. It could be that exhibited a natural deference to an administration of their party, and now realize that the policies are not as fruitful as they had hoped, as expected, and as was represented to them, so they are making a decision to be more independent. That is complete speculation on my part.
Jeff Dunetz: What does the Congress want to hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu when he speaks before the joint session next week?
Rep. Roskam: I wouldn’t presume to tell the Prime Minister what to say.
Jeff Dunetz: It’s OK on my blog I tell him what to say almost every day. He doesn’t listen to me though.
Rep. Roskam:: My hunch is he is going to call on the U.S. Congress to stand with Israel; he will communicate the good faith efforts, which time and again, the Israelis have pursued as it relates to peace, the unwillingness of the Palestinian leadership to engage substantially in that, and that Israel is not, nor should it be in a position to bid against itself. He will also speak of his deep gratitude for the support Israel has had in the United States Congress.
Jeff Dunetz: Another big issue relating to Israel is Iran’s nuclear program. Do you see the sanctions working?
Rep. Roskam:: They seem like a real mixed bag. The question of Iran comes up in the context of the larger democracy movements in the Middle East. The administration essentially waved off any intervention on behalf of the Iranians who were trying to throw off the oppressive regime and let that falter and, I believe, squandered an opportunity. In contrast, they engaged substantially in other areas of the Middle East and you wonder what is the benefit of that for the U.S., how does that help our security interests in the long run. So in answer to your question about Iran, it’s a mixed bag at this point.
Jeff Dunetz: Is there a discussion of new, harsher sanctions in Congress?
Rep. Roskam: Not in my circles, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more discussions happening.
Jeff Dunetz: In the op-ed you also spoke of the incitement against Israel that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are using to motivate their populace against peace. Is there anything Congress can do to encourage them to stop?
Rep. Roskam: The biggest restraining influence that we can be as the House on behalf of the American people, is to forgo U.S. financial support. That speaks volumes as compared to resolutions.
Jeff Dunetz: There is a GOP majority in the House so it might be possible to get a suspension of financial support through there. But what about the Senate, what is the likelihood of getting such a bill through the Senate?
Rep. Roskam: You know what? I just don’t know. The administration is going to have a lot of influence on Senate action.
Jeff Dunetz: So what is the bottom line? Do you see the President being bold tomorrow when he makes his speech? Or is he going to, well he never stopped campaigning, but is he going to worry that he is in the middle of a re-election campaign and worry about angering supporters of either side?
Rep. Roskam: I think the President has an opportunity to be bold and to be clear. Bold clarity on good policy is also good politics. It is my hope that he does that and does it for the right reasons.
Based on our discussion, I believe that the House Republican leadership as represented by Congressman Roskam does “get it.” He understands the strategic value of a strong democratic state of Israel in what is probably the most dangerous region of the world for United States interests–especially as Iran continues to pick up power and allies from those counties going through the “Arab Awakening.”
While the Congressman seemed hopeful that the President would do the right thing in his speech tomorrow, my ingression was that he was more hopeful than confident.
Unfortunately, I agree.