JERUSALEM, Nov. 15 (JTA) — Rep. Robert Wexler has been to Israel many times. But for the first time in a while, this visit gave him a renewed sense of hope. “On some other trips I took to Israel I left wondering if there was any light at the end of tunnel,” said Wexler (D-Fla.), a senior member of the House International Relations Committee who led a bipartisan congressional delegation on a four-day visit that ended Nov. 11, the day of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s burial in Ramallah. “On this trip, I leave with the legitimate hope that if the Palestinians act in a responsible way and evolve into a more pragmatic government that denounces and defeats terror, that there is hope,” he said. The group of U.S. congressmen spoke to JTA in Jerusalem as two events came together to create hope for progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace: the death of Arafat and the re-election of President Bush. “I feel like I’ve been participating in a part of history,” Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio), on his first trip to Israel, said as he took stock of the new reality. The group stopped in Jordan, where they met with King Abdullah II, before traveling to Israel, where they met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other top officials. Wexler, who represents a heavily Jewish district in southern Florida, said that he came away from his meetings with Sharon and Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the impression that the Palestinians would find an Israeli leadership that “was willing to talk.” The Democrats on the trip expressed hope that President Bush would more aggressively pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in the wake of Arafat’s death. “I’ve been critical of the administration’s hands-off policy,” Strickland said. “I hope the president has learned as a result of unfolding events that he cannot not be engaged and involved.” The Israeli and American administrations had shunned Arafat because of his ties to terrorism, saying he wasn’t a partner for peace talks. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said he hoped that with Arafat now dead, Bush would have no excuses not to take action. “If we are going to have peace here, Bush is going to need to broaden his perspective to a greater vision of Israel than that offered by many in the evangelical Christian movement who keep looking to a Greater Israel,” Gutierrez said. “It’s not going to lead to a fruitful outcome,” Gutierrez continued, adding that what is needed is two states “each living without fear of one another.” Bush has made the creation of a Palestinian state a centerpiece of his Mideast policy, but has said that the Palestinians first must eradicate the terrorists in their midst and institute reforms to make their government more democratic and accountable. The Palestinians agreed to those steps in 2002 under the “road map” peace plan, but never carried them out. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who chairs the International Relations Committee’s Middle East Subcommittee, said she doesn’t expect Bush to be overly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his second term. The Israelis and Palestinians “will be self-driven,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “We’ve got a lot to do in Iraq still and Afghanistan, and I don’t see President Bush nose-diving into the peace process anytime soon. I hope with the rise of a new Palestinian leadership,” the Palestinians will move toward moderation. The delegation came to discuss Israel’s plan to withdraw soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip, the situation in Iraq, and the status of Palestinian Authority leadership after Arafat. The trip was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.
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