After meeting on Labor Day with Benjamin Netanyahu, Rep. Rush Holt told NJ Jewish News the Israeli prime minister “recognizes this is a special time, which is why he seems more than willing to make these negotiations succeed.”
Holt (D-Dist. 12), traveled to Jerusalem and Amman over the holiday weekend to meet separately with Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Jordan.
Holt, chair of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, was accompanied by two other Democrats on the panel, Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Steve Israel (D-NY)
The six-term congressman from Hopewell Township described their meetings, coming just days after Israelis and Palestinians resumed U.S.-sponsored peace talks, as “very encouraging.”
“Netanyahu spent a fair amount of time insulating himself from any blame should the talks fail, as you might expect any politician to do,” said Holt with a chuckle. “But he said essentially, ‘This is the time and I am the man.’ It was interesting to hear him say that. He seems to recognize that things aren’t getting any better in the region. Israel is not becoming more secure, and to keep doing what it has been doing, only longer and harder, is not likely to lead to the long-term security and prosperity of Israel.”
One key issue looming over the talks is whether the Israeli leader will extend the current moratorium over expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank, a potential deal-breaker in any negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. The ban is scheduled to elapse on Sept. 26.
“We of course asked Netanyahu about the settlements, and he acknowledged that it is a sticky issue,” said Holt. “We asked if he saw a way to walk through that minefield, and he suggested that he did, but he wasn’t going to tell us what it was.”
Neither Netanyahu nor the king “is grandstanding,” Holt added.
Holt, Wasserman Schultz, and Rep. Israel all have cordial relations with J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization that has pushed for an assertive U.S. role in peace negotiations. The group has come under fire from some Jewish organizations that consider it overly critical of Israel, while a conservative pro-Israel group has run ads questioning Holt’s pro-Israel credentials (see sidebar).
Holt insisted that his fellow legislators’ “credentials of support for Israel are impeccable, as are mine. I have made many trips to Israel and I feel very comfortable in Israel.”
During the two-day visit, Holt said, “there was no time to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but we did talk with people who are close to the Palestinians.” Holt declined to identify them.
Holt said the Jordanian monarch “wants the talks to succeed. He has taken very specific actions before he went to Washington” as one of the Middle Eastern leaders, along with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who joined Netanyahu and Abbas with President Barack Obama earlier this month.
According to Holt, Abdullah “met with some Arab counties before and after his trip to the White House because [the king] believes these negotiations can’t succeed if there is not just buy-in but truly positive steps from other countries in the region.”
Holt declined to specify the countries that the king visited.
“It is much too early” to determine a probability of success or failure of the talks, said Holt. “It is a year-long process, with an ongoing debate over how soon the toughest issues should be tackled, and whether or not they create impasses that could scuttle negotiations.”
He said he was struck by an observation the Jordanian king made about his time in Washington.
“Abdullah pointed out that Netanyahu and Abbas spent all the time, even in social situations, talking to each other, not with other people around. That suggests they are serious about these negotiations,” said Holt. “That’s good.”