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Rodney Frelinghuysen skeptical on bombing Syria
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Rodney Frelinghuysen skeptical on bombing Syria

Lawmaker’s Israel trip showed him dangers of regional upheaval

As he prepared to vote against authorizing a military strike against the Syrian government, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Dist. 11) said he has Israel as well as the United States on his mind.

“There are millions of Syrian refugees spilling into Turkey and into Jordan and that is highly destabilizing. They are no friends of Israel,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Sept. 4 telephone interview. “You have weapons in the hands of the Syrians but also weapons in the hands of people who would do what they could to destroy Israel. You’ve got a lot of bad actors. It is an incredibly dangerous situation.”

Frelinghuysen, a member of the House’s Armed Services Committee, traveled to Israel between Aug. 3 and 8 with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a member of its Foreign Affairs Committee.

The lawmaker spoke to NJJN a week before the House of Representatives was set to vote on whether to approve the Obama administration’s request for support for an attack in the face of reports that Syria used chemical weapons on its own people.

Frelinghuysen said he was “inclined quite honestly to oppose it.”

“I found the people in my district did not want to us to intervene,” said Frelinghuysen. “I think they are horrified but I am not sure that limited military strikes are going to accomplish whatever President Obama has in the way of a strategic plan. I don’t see it. I don’t think there is a great partisan divide. I think people just want to know what the president’s plan is.”

Other members of the NJ congressional delegation, Republican and Democrat, are also weighing the case for a Syria strike, although few are as full-throated in their support for military action as Sen. Robert Menendez. “We don’t look away when undeniable war crimes are committed,” the Democrat said in a statement. “To allow a despot to gas their population indiscriminately and with impunity is to fail our values and to compromise our freedoms…. The Syrian regime and others like it must understand that red lines are indelible, that our foes should never question the resolve of the United States.”

During his Israel trip, Frelinghuysen took part in a 90-minute meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, the congressman said, “was focused on Iran and the region. I think the most immediate threat to Israel’s survival is what is happening in Iran in terms of its nuclear capacity. I feel they are hell-bent on doing that, no matter what else is happening on the world stage. They have missile capacity, and hopefully the marriage of their missiles and their nuclear arms will not happen, but in reality, I think it will happen.”

Frelinghuysen has doubts that Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, will behave in a more conciliatory fashion than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

“From the briefings we have had, I think he has an aura of having a more worldly view of things. But I heard he has a pretty sordid past and we shouldn’t take his words at face value,” the congressman told NJJN.

“The people I’ve talked to think he is highly anti-Semitic, and he has been involved in activities that have led to people’s deaths and disappearances. So I don’t see him as particularly trustworthy, although I know a whole group of Republicans who feels he represents a new generation and new opportunity.”

Although he applauded Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to initiate new peace talks between Palestinian and Israeli leaders, Frelinghuysen said both Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres “want the talks to be successful, but I think they know that history does not show that there has been much potential for movement among the Palestinians.”

Frelinghuysen’s visit was his first to Israel in 12 years. As he and Ros-Lehtinen flew over West Bank settlements in a military helicopter, he said, he was struck by how much they had expanded.

“The settlements are formidable,” he observed. “They are enormous. Let’s be realistic. The people there are of the view that they are there to stay. That obviously is antagonistic and problematic in terms of coming up with some sort of a diplomatic solution.

“But the people are enormously proud of their heritage. Everybody there is working hard. They are a common force and to some extent they represent border security in a very good way. I can’t see quite honestly those settlements being depopulated.”

He said whether or not the settlements remain, “the Palestinians may never agree to peace with Israel anyway.”

Frelinghuysen said he and Ros-Lehtinen were especially impressed with their visit to Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem.

“The things they are doing for both Jews and non-Jews, for children in terms of pediatrics and surgery and cancer — it’s a wonderful hospital. Mothers of all religions were there to get the best care possible for their children. It was one of the highlights of the trip,” he said.

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