Congressional leaders are urging lawmakers to stand behind President Bush's Middle East policy while Secretary of State Colin Powell is in the region. Leaders of both parties and the Bush administration had been concerned about the impact of some lawmakers' statements (earlier in the week) expressing strong support for Israel and condemnation of the Palestinian Authority.
Several lawmakers spoke out in defense of Israel (this week) in the wake of a series of suicide bombings there, and declined to question the Israeli military offensive in the Palestinian territories. Senator Arlen Specter is a Republican from Pennsylvania. "I think that on the wave of the suicide bombings, that it is very difficult to ask the Israelis to stop their efforts in self-defense to root out the terrorists and to stop the suicide bombings," he said. "It is very, very hard to do that."
Some lawmakers condemned Palestinians for not halting the suicide bombings. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein was one of nearly two dozen bipartisan Senators to meet with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Capitol Hill Wednesday. "At the heart of the Palestinian agenda is really the destruction of the state of Israel," she said.
Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders and administration officials were worried that such statements would undercut Secretary Powell's efforts to broker a ceasefire and begin talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle sent a message to fellow Senators when he told reporters Thursday that now is not the time to disturb sensitive negotiations. Republican Senate Leader Trent Lott echoed the call Friday. "I think we should not be prejudging or being critical at a time when Secretary Powell is in the region having important meetings," he said.
But the appeal for restraint comes amid increasing criticism of President Bush from both conservative and liberal lawmakers. They argue Mr. Bush's pressure on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territory is at odds with his own pledge to take a firm stand against terrorism after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Senator Chuck Schumer is a Democrat from New York. "It seems like the policy in the Middle East has had a 180 degree turn, without any explanation, without understanding its inconsistency, without letting us understand as Americans who support the war on terrorism, how we can sit down with someone who perpetrates terrorism at the same time chastise and put handcuffs around the country trying to defend itself against terrorism," he said. "It is very, very perplexing."
Support for Israel has always been strong on Capitol Hill, because of influential Jewish lobbying groups and that nation's strategic importance as a pro-western democracy in a largely Arab region. But lawmakers in both parties say the September 11th attacks in the United States and the wave suicide bombings in Israel have created an even stronger bond that allows for a greater margin for self-defense by both countries.
Some lawmakers are considering legislative measures to help Israel. Senators Feinstein and Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, are proposing legislation that would cut U.S. ties with the Palestinian Authority.
Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman of New York is sponsoring a similar measure in the House that would allow the president to impose sanctions on the Palestinian Authority. Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos is sponsoring a resolution on solidarity with Israel.
But Democratic Congressman John Dingell of Michigan, whose district includes a large Arab-American constituency, believes such legislation can only hurt the peace process.
Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska also underscored the importance of a more even-handed approach when he spoke on the floor of the Senate Friday. "We understand Israel's right to defend herself," he said. "We are committed to that right. We have helped Israel defend that right, and we will continue to do so. But it should not be at the expense of the Palestinian people. Innocent Palestinian people, like innocent Israeli people are paying a high price. Both Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in this war not of their own making."
Lawmakers sponsoring sanctions legislation against the Palestinian Authority have agreed not to move forward on their proposals while Secretary Powell is in the region.