Middle East drama on Capitol Hill
Middle East policy is a hot topic in Washington, from congressmen calling on Obama to adopt a more decisive stance toward Syria to conflicting views on how to solve stalled Palestinian-Israeli talks.
This summer is much busier than usual in Washington, DC, even without taking the debt ceiling drama into account.
Here are some updates on what is going on in the U.S. capital:
1. Congressmen press the Obama administration to take a more decisive position on Syria
The U.S. administration has pretty much exhausted all the possible ways to put pressure on Assad's regime - sanctions, rebukes, hints that the regime "is not indispensible" – other than explicitly calling for Assad to step down. And that's exactly what members of Congress would like the Administration to do.
"Noting that Assad has lost legitimacy without calling for his immediate departure from power trivializes the death of thousands of Syrians killed by Assad's thugs", Rep. Gary Ackerman (New York, Democrat), said Wednesday during the hearing of the Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, titled "Axis of Abuse: U.S. Human Rights Policy Toward Iran and Syria".
Ackerman continued, saying "the Obama administration has barely scratched even the surface of their utility in aiding the people of Syria in throwing off this regime of murderers and thieves and torturers of children. History will record not only how we mostly ignored the people of Syria in their hour of need but, worse, how we overlooked our own blindingly obvious national interest in the demise of the Assad regime".
Ackerman then told the committee that he keeps a black-and-white photo in his office of Sierpc, Poland, the place where his family came from.
"Following the Nazi invasion in 1939, the Jews in Sierpc were rounded up, sent to the Warsaw ghetto, and liquidated. There was no help for them,” he said.
The congressman continued, saying "the free world claimed not to know. And even if it had, it probably still would not have helped. We said "never again." But it happened again. It happened in Cambodia. It happened in Bosnia. It happened in Rwanda, Congo,Sudan.”
He then said that this same phenomena is happening again today in Syria, “and in each case, governments, including ours, like guilty children, look down at their shoes and say to no one in particular, ‘There's nothing we could have done.’"
Ackerman clarified that he is not calling for military intervention in Syria, but that "the President must call for Bashar Assad, the “blood-soaked dictator”, to step down.
“Trifling with the lives of the people of Syria with nuanced, lawyerly phrases like ‘President Assad must understand he is not indispensable’ is shameful", the congressman said.
Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State from the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, who represented the administration at the hearing, along with Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State from Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Location, shared the Congress members’ contempt for the Syrian leader, saying that "Bashar al-Assad is not a reformer but someone whose rule relies on terror, theft and torture".
2. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon fails to stop people from calling the West Bank ‘occupied territories’
Danny Ayalon's video in which he explains why the West Bank shouldn't be called "occupied territories", failed to convince its audience.
Ayalon says in the 6-minute video that "the West Bank shouldn't be considered ‘occupied’, because there was no legal sovereign in the area. These are ‘disputed’ territories.”
The minister then went on to explain that “these are not just my own opinions they are based on conclusions of the world renowned jurists. Let's stop using the term ‘occupied territories’ and ‘1967 borders’ - they are simply not politically correct. “
"Atlantic" magazine's correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in response to Ayalon’s comments in his blog that "the Israeli Foreign Ministry is now part of the settlement movement", and calls the video "disturbing".
3. Watchdog group presents report showing PA gives prisoners in Israeli prisons monthly salaries
"The Palestinian Media Watch" presented a special report to members of the Republican Israel Caucus at the Congress on Tuesday, titled "Palestinian Authority glorification of terrorists and paying salaries to terrorists with US money".
According to the report, the Palestinian Authority pays monthly salaries to 5,500 prisoners in Israeli prisons, including terrorists - taking the money from its general budget.
Last week, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs adopted two amendments written by Rep. Eliot L. Engel (New York, Democrat), setting forth condition for assistance to the Palestinian Authority. According to the amendment, aid to the PA is to be blocked if they declare independence or seeks UN recognition. It also stipulates that the Palestinian leadership put an end to incitement and prepare its people for peace with Israel.
This was, of course, only the first legislative step - but at the initial committee reading, it was adopted with a 44 to 0 vote, which is in all likelihood indicative of further votes.
4. Durban III to proceed despite widespread opposition
Despite the fact that the U.S., Canada, Israel, and recently the Czech Republic, Italy and the Netherlands decided to skip what has been dubbed the "Durban III" conference that will take place on September 22, there is already a draft resolution, to be discussed at an informal meeting of UN member states Thursday at the New York UN Headquarters.
Durban III will proceed, and despite the text of the initial draft which does not explicitly mention Israel by name, it does call for the implementation of other relevant resolutions, which have been defined by Israel and its supporters as anti-Israeli.
5. Middle East policy expert blames U.S. opposition to Palestinian bid to UN for statehood on U.S. domestic policy limitations
After the Quartet meeting in Washington failed to yield results, Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, argued that the Obama administration’s adamant opposition to a Palestinian bid to the UN for statehood stems from the domestic policy limitations.
"With re-election coming up the president would be unenthusiastic about having to deal with the background noise criticism that many of the so-called pro-Israel lobbying groups would undoubtedly generate in the wake of any UN vote", Levy wrote.
6. U.S. still ‘engaged’ in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, but nothing new to report
Defense Ehud Barak arrives in Washington on Thursday, but it is questionable as to whether he brings any news to the U.S. capital, or if he is just coming to greet his new counterpart (and old friend), Secretary of Defense Leon Panneta.
When asked about whether the peace process is “still alive”, State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said that the U.S. remains “engaged on the peace process. I don't have any updates for you today, but, you know, we are aware of events in September and are working diligently to get the parties back to the table", Toner said.
As for the deadline for a negotiated agreement that was once set for September - Toner said that "it's not a hard and fast deadline. We're obviously cognizant of the fact that this [unilaterally seeking recognition] is an action that the Palestinians may take. And we're trying to dissuade them and persuade them that the only true way to a comprehensive settlement is through the negotiating table".