WASHINGTON — Two senior U.S. senators who recently returned from a trip to the Middle East warned Tuesday that the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan could destabilize Jordan, a key U.S. ally and one of only two Arab countries that has an official peace treaty with Israel.
Senators Mitt Romney (Republican of Utah) and Chris Murphy (Democrat of Connecticut), who head a Senate subcommittee on the Middle East, paid a joint visit to the region last week.
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They met with the recently appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, as well as Israeli, Jordanian and Iraqi officials, but didn’t meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Unlike most senators who visit Israel, Romney and Murphy did not receive an invitation to meet with Netanyahu. Some Israeli media outlets speculated this could be a result of the fact that both men have harshly criticized U.S. President Donald Trump in recent months. The senators, however, rejected this interpretation, reiterating the Prime Minister’s Office statement according to which Netanyahu was on a family vacation in the Golan Heights during the time of their visit.
“Both of us spoke with Netanyahu, Bibi. He was on vacation at the Golan Heights. We were certainly able to go to the Golan Heights and visit with him on vacation, but chose not to do so,” Romney said.
Romney added that “If I were on vacation after an election [campaign] like he [Netanyahu] went through, I would not be looking to fly back to Jerusalem to meet with a couple of senators, two out of a hundred.”
One of the main issues Romney and Murphy focused on during their trip was Trump’s Middle East peace plan, with both senators getting the impression the region has low expectations ahead of its much-awaited unveiling this summer.
“Throughout the region, you see very low expectations,” Murphy said in a briefing to reporters on Tuesday, which he and Romney held together on Capitol Hill. He said the Palestinians in particular have expressed “frustration and pessimism” over the plan, since they believe it will be one-sided and tilted toward Israel’s positions.
Murphy added, however, that the plan was also causing great concern in neighboring Jordan, where a majority of the population is of Palestinian origin. “Jordan is as stable as you get in the region, but there are factors like this peace plan that could destabilize the country,” he said at one point in the briefing. He also cautioned that “it’s important to note what’s happening in Jordan, there is real worry.”
Murphy further explained that “they are worried what will be the reaction on the Jordanian street to a peace framework that is not a true framework for discussion. They had major protests there just last year, times are particularly serious in Jordan. They have many refugees, there is the state of the economy. So there are concerns.”
Murphy added that the United States, more than two years into Trump’s presidency, still doesn’t have a permanent ambassador to Jordan. “We don’t have an ambassador there — maybe if we had, we would be more aware of their concerns,” he said.
Romney, who has been a rare Republican critic of Trump since joining the Senate earlier this year, said, “We had a number of people saying to us: ‘We are concerned about the deal of the century.’” Romney said that both he and Murphy were not aware that the term “deal of the century” is how many in the region refer to the Trump peace plan.
“There are high expectations that something substantial will come out [of the plan],” Romney added. “But at the same time, there is a sense that it is not going to be satisfactory to the Palestinian people. No one quite knows what it will look like.”
Romney stated that during their visit to the region, neither senator heard “any alternative” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict other than the two-state solution.
Romney, who was the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, said that the only other solution — providing Israeli citizenship to Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — would lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
“Over time, it would become predominantly Palestinian; that did not seem to be something which the Israelis were looking forward to,” he said.
Romney also spoke about his decades-long friendship with Netanyahu, dating back to the 1970s. “I’ve known Prime Minister Netanyahu for many, many years. We had our first job after business school together at the Boston Consulting Group. Back then he was called Ben-Nitay, because most Americans could not pronounce Netanyahu. I’ve known him a long time.”
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