News / Middle East

US Mideast Role Under Scrutiny in Congress

During Biden visit, the Israeli government announced plans for new housing in East Jerusalem, ignoring American calls for a construction freeze

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For decades, the United States has tried to act as a bridge between Israelis and Arabs.  President Barack Obama, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, is looking for ways to end hostilities and bring about a long-elusive peace.

This was supposed to be a period of heightened U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, with U.S. envoy George Mitchell named as a go-between in indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and Vice President Joe Biden making a high-profile trip this week to Jerusalem.

"There is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel's security," said Biden.

He also visited Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank.

"The United States will always stand with those who take the risk that peace requires," he added.

Biden is the highest-ranking Obama administration official to make such a trip.  But during his visit, the Israeli government announced plans for new housing in East Jerusalem, ignoring American calls for a construction freeze.  Biden was furious.

"...because that decision, in my view, undermined that trust required for productive negotiations," Biden said.  "I, at the request of President Obama, condemned it immediately and unequivocally."

In the streets of Jerusalem, Israelis and Palestinians pondered the U.S. role in the quest for peace.

PALESTINIAN MAN:  "They have proven years ago that they are not relevant.  Because the only thing the Americans care about is Israeli security and not the security of others."
ISRAELI WOMAN:  "If Obama would make an effort to deter all those who are out against Israel, they will respect Israelis and increase the chances of making peace."

In Washington, the U.S. Congress weighed in.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee called in experts to discuss American mediation efforts.  A veteran American diplomat told the panel that it is a heavy responsibility.

"When the United States speaks its views, people listen," said Daniel Kurtzer.

Daniel Kurtzer served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel.  He wants to see more from the Obama administration.

"I have been disappointed this last year with the lack of boldness and the lack of creativity and the lack of strength in our diplomacy with respect to this peace process," he added.

Others point to an increasingly complicated situation in the region.  Robert Malley worked in the Clinton White House and is now with the International Crisis Group, a private policy research firm in Washington.

"I cannot recall a time that was more complex, contradictory, and confusing," said Malley.

But if Israelis and Palestinians agree on anything, it is that the stakes in the peace process are too high for the American government to walk away.

Ziad Asali campaigns in the United States for the Palestinian cause.  He also testified before the Senate committee.

"The United States is the indispensable partner that can bring all parties to negotiations and agreement," he said.

Since the 1970s, American mediation has resulted in big progress in the peace process.  1978 brought the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.  And in 1993, an Israeli-Palestinian handshake on the White House lawn signaled a pledge for peace.

But today, progress remains elusive.  And the main goal is to get negotiations moving again.

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