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Incoming House Speaker Strives for Balanced Approach on Peace

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When it comes to Israel, incoming Speaker of the House Bob Livingston has made it clear he’s no Newt Gingrich.

The outgoing speaker, a Georgia Republican, closely allied himself with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and frequently criticized the Palestinians and the Clinton administration’s handling of the peace process. Gingrich has won praise from Democrats and Republicans alike for his strong pro-Israel activism.

But Livingston (R-La.) is likely to give the White House much more latitude.

“It is imperative for the Jewish people to put their trust in this process and to encourage it because the alternatives are too hard to imagine,” Livingston said in remarks last week to the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican Jewish group. “We’ve got to pursue this process to a conclusion which is a fair and honorable peace for both sides.”

Livingston spoke as the Clinton administration was pressuring Israel to reverse a decision to delay the transfer of additional West Bank territory to the Palestinians.

He touched on many traditional pro-Israel themes in his first speech to a Jewish group since being selected by the GOP to lead the next Congress.

Livingston pledged the “same commitment Newt Gingrich had: a total and absolute dedication to the security of Israel.” At the same time, the incoming speaker said, “The peace process must not be used as a ruse to undermine Israel’s security.”

But the remainder of Livingston’s remarks stood in sharp contrast to Gingrich who is known for his strong rhetoric in support of Israel. Gingrich would tick off Palestinian violations of the peace accords nearly in sync with the Israeli government. Livingston instead used his address to lead cheers for the peace process.

“They’re on the cusp of what can be the promise of many generations of peace and prosperity or the alternative of confrontation,” he said. “It’s up to all of us as Americans and as friends of Israel to make sure that the confrontation does not happen.”

When asked by a reporter what President Clinton should do to stop Palestinian violence, Livingston sought middle ground.

“I hope he will be discouraging everyone from violence,” he said.

As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Livingston had sparred with Netanyahu during the last Congress, when Israel seemed to back off a promise to return some U.S. aid to fund economic assistance for Jordan. Livingston acknowledged his differences with Netanyahu in the speech.

“I might not agree with him on everything but I understand he is the prime minister,” he said.

Livingston called on the Republican Jewish group to support the Palestinians, arguing that the Palestinian people “need this peace process.”

“We must be considerate of their needs,” he said.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, rejected as “apples and oranges” comparisons between Gingrich and Livingston.

“Livingston had a very positive message for the Jewish community,” Brooks said of his speech to the group.

“He reaffirmed strong support for Israel and said there would be no change in course.”

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