Friday, February 27, 2009

ACTION on Israeli-Palestinian Peace: FCNL

Friends Committee on National Legislation - A Quaker Lobby in the Public Interest

***Take Action: Urge Support for House Resolution Endorsing Obama Vision of Israeli-Palestinian Peace***here

***Welcome to FCNL's Greater Middle East Diplomacy Update for February 27, 2009***

"To put it simply, all key issues in the Middle East… are inextricably linked." Iraq Study Group, December 2006

*Iraq: Obama Speech is Major Milestone on Road to End War in Iraq*

President Barack Obama's speech from Camp Lejune this morning marks a major milestone on the road to end the war in Iraq. The president pledged to end the U.S. combat mission and reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq to between 35,000 and 50,000 by August 2010. This is a slower drawdown than we at FCNL would like to see, but it is consistent with the president's campaign pledge and it is a step towards bringing the war to an end.

Along with the troop drawdown, the president outlined an approach to the region centered around inclusive diplomacy, including talks with Iran and Syria, which we at FCNL have long advocated. The president's policy follows almost exactly the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report issued in December 2006, which FCNL supports and which Obama introduced legislation to implement in January 2007 when serving in the Senate.

We at FCNL will be paying special attention to how well the president's policies implement the provisions of the November 2008 U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement. The agreement requires the United States to redeploy its combat troops outside Iof raq's cities, towns, and villages no later than June 30, 2009. The president's declaration today is consistent with the agreement but does not ensure that the United States will comply with the redeployment provision.

More cause for concern is the president's reference to the second withdrawal provision of the U.S.-Iraq accord, which obligates the United States to withdraw all of its armed forces from Iraq no later than December 31, 2011. The president said only that under the agreement he intends to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of 2011. FCNL will continue to urge Congress to assert its constitutional role in approving the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement. Congress should make clear that the December 31 deadline for complete withdrawal is a binding commitment for the United States that cannot be changed without congressional consent. [Full text of speech can be found here: here

*Israel-Palestine: Gaza Hearing, Congressional Visits, Evidence Change*

The new “pro-Israel, pro-peace” J Street lobby wrote in its most recent action alert that “momentum is building in Washington behind renewed US peace efforts in the Middle East.” Congressional and administration actions over the past two weeks suggest that this is more than communications hype. Consider the following developments.

* Ackerman and Wexler Take on Israeli Settlements: House Foreign Affairs Middle East Subcommittee Chair Gary Ackerman (NY) held a February 12 hearing on “Gaza after the War: What Can Be Built on the Wreckage?” In his opening statement Ackerman decried a “downward spiral” in Israeli-Palestinian relations caused by “terrorism and the march of settlements and outposts, from the firing of rockets and the perpetration of settler pogroms.” Since Ackerman is considered one of Israel’s strongest supporters in Congress, his references to settlements and settler pogroms drew much attention.

Subcommittee member Robert Wexler (FL) also criticized Israeli settlement expansion. “The Palestinians have enormous responsibilities,” he said, “but the notion that Israel can continue to expand settlements, whether it be through natural growth or otherwise without diminishing the capacity of a two-state solution is both unrealistic, and I would respectfully suggest hypocritical.” The Obama administration, he added, should insist that Israel fulfill its previous commitments to freeze settlement construction.

* Ellison and Baird Visit Gaza and Deplore Conditions: Over the Presidents Day recess Reps. Keith Ellison (MN) and Brian Baird (WA) became the first U.S. officials to visit the Gaza Strip since the Hamas takeover in June 2007. The two members of Congress said they visited to view firsthand the destruction from the Israeli attacks and to meet international and local relief workers.

“The amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering,” Baird said in a joint press release here with Ellison. “Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed, schools completely leveled, fundamental water, sewer, and electricity facilities hit and relief agencies heavily damaged. The personal stories of children being killed in their homes or schools, entire families wiped out, and relief workers prevented from evacuating the wounded are heart wrenching — what went on here, and what is continuing to go on, is shocking and troubling beyond words.”

“The stories about the children affected me the most,” Ellison said. “No parent, or anyone who cares for kids, can remain unmoved by what Brian and I saw here.”

The two concluded, “If this had happened in our own country, there would be national outrage and an appeal for urgent assistance. We are glad that the Obama administration acted quickly to send much needed funding for this effort but the arbitrary and unreasonable Israeli limitations on food and repair essentials is unacceptable and indefensible.” Ellison and Baird also visited the Israeli town of Sderot and called for an end to Hamas rocket fire on Israel as well as the lifting of the Gaza blockade.

* Kerry Breaks Israel’s Macaroni Blockade: The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry (MA), also visited the Gaza Strip over the Presidents Day recess. Kerry learned from U.N. officials during his visit that Israeli authorities had refused to allow macaroni to enter Gaza. Israel, Kerry was told, did not define pasta products as part of humanitarian aid and was allowing only rice to cross the border. Kerry later met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and questioned the logic of preventing macaroni from reaching Gaza. Israeli newspapers reported here that Kerry’s intervention prompted Israel to lift its macaroni embargo.

* Clinton and Mitchell Take on Israel’s Gaza Aid Restrictions: U.S. Middle East Peace Envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are reportedly sending Israel a series of messages [] expressing U.S. anger at obstacles Israel is putting in the way of humanitarian aid delivery to Gaza. The issue is expected to be a focus of upcoming visits to Israel by Mitchell and Clinton. Israel is allowing some 150 truckloads of supplies into Gaza every day, while U.S., European Union, and U.N. officials say 500 truckloads per day are needed to meet the minimum needs of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents.

* Israel-Palestine Peace Resolution Gains House Cosponsors: H. Res. 130, the resolution introduced February 4 by Rep. William Delahunt (MA) supporting the Mitchell peace mission and affirming that Israeli-Palestinian peace is an essential U.S. national security interest, is gaining ground. It currently has 65 cosponsors, more than any House resolution supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace has ever garnered. here

* Senate Chimes in with Feinstein Letter to Clinton: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (CA) has circulated among her colleagues a sign-on letter to Secretary of State Clinton endorsing the Obama administration’s efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace and affirming that Israeli security and Israeli-Palestinian peace are vital U.S. national security interests. Click here

These congressional and administration actions over the past two weeks reveal a growing will to take the steps needed to make progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. Grassroots support can keep that will growing.

***Afghanistan/Iran: Is the U.S. Preparing to Engage Iran on Afghanistan?***

For U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, “It is absolutely clear that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan. They have a legitimate role to play in this region, as do all of Afghanistan’s neighbors.”

Holbrooke’s statement, made February 15 on his first visit to Kabul, and several other recent developments suggest that the Obama administration may be pursuing an “Afghanistan first” approach to engagement with Iran. The goals would be to enlist Iranian help in stabilizing Afghanistan and open U.S.-Iranian talks in an area where the two countries have common interests and have cooperated closely in the past.

Such a policy would follow one of the key recommendations on Afghanistan that FCNL made in its February 18 letter to President Barack Obama. “Direct U.S. engagement with Iran,” we said, “will be critical to the success” of a regional diplomatic initiative to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan “and could pave the way for broader cooperation” with Iran.

Another sign of efforts to engage Iran on Afghanistan was the Italian foreign ministry announcement on February 23 that Italy is considering inviting Iran to a June 27 meeting in Trieste to discuss ways to stabilize Afghanistan and secure the Afghan-Pakistani border area. The meeting would bring the United States and other G-8 countries together with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, India, China, and Turkey to discuss Afghanistan.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA) has reacted cautiously but positively to including Iran in the June Trieste conference. After returning from a visit to Italy and Afghanistan this week, she said she and Italian officials had “sounded each other out” on the idea of including Iran. "Italy has a big commercial relationship with Iran, comparatively speaking,” Pelosi said, “and I think we made it clear that we thought that it would be important to use their good offices to help resolve issues that we have with Iran."

The United States has also signaled that it would accept the opening of a supply route through Iran to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan. In early February the NATO supreme commander, U.S. Gen. John Craddock, said he had no objections to NATO member states’ concluding agreements with Iran to bring in supplies through that country. "Those would be national decisions,” Craddock said. “Nations should act in a manner that is consistent with their national interest and with their ability to resupply their forces. I think it is purely up to them."

Taken together, these developments suggest that the administration is positioning itself for a diplomatic initiative that could improve both conditions in Afghanistan and U.S.-Iranian relations.

***Take Action***

If you have not yet written to your representative asking him or her to cosponsor H. Res. 130, please do so now. If you have already written, contact three friends and ask them to write. This resolution endorsing the Obama administration’s efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace and asserting that ending the conflict is an essential U.S. national security interest is gaining ground. It already has more cosponsors than any previous House resolution supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace, and it is becoming an important barometer of congressional support for U.S. peacemaking efforts. Help make the barometer register record high pressure. Write and ask your friends to write now Click here

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