Future House Power Says Dems Back a Dialogue with Iran, Syria

Encouraging contact with Syria and Iran will be a central plank of the new Democratic Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives’ incoming majority leader said, outlining an agenda that differs radically from the Bush administration’s on domestic and foreign policy. U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said both parties’ support for Israel would remain unstinting.

“[Rep.] Roy Blunt and I will continue to make it clear that there is a bipartisan overwhelming commitment to Israel’s defense and security,” Hoyer said, referring to the incoming minority whip, a Missouri Republican.

While a number of the marquee domestic items that the Democrats hope to pass in Congress’ first 100 working hours already have explicit Jewish backing, the leadership’s openness toward Syria and Iran conflicts dramatically with much of the mainstream pro-Israel community.

“Not talking is not particularly useful,” Hoyer said in a wide-ranging 45-minute phone interview with JTA. “It may be symbolic but it doesn’t get to solutions.”

He said the Democratic Party embraced such contacts, one of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, the congressionally mandated commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton.

Hoyer scored a decisive win in a caucus vote last month to become majority leader. Jewish groups watched the race closely, since Hoyer has proven to be one of Israel’s best friends in Congress, leading multiple delegations to the Jewish state and isolating the caucus’ few anti-Israel voices.

In the interview, he said commitment to Israel was unflagging, noting that Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a Holocaust survivor who is one of Israel’s staunchest defenders, was set to chair the House International Relations Committee.

Hoyer also said he expected to strengthen close alliances with the Jewish community on a host of domestic issues where there is natural agreement.

“The Jewish community has been a real partner in fighting for policies on the domestic front in America,” Hoyer said.

Among those key items that Democrats hope to pass in Congress’ first 100 working hours that already have explicit Jewish backing: The Reform movement and the National Council of Jewish Women back raising the minimum wage; the American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress back federally funded research into energy independence; and a wall-to-wall coalition of groups led by Hadassah backs funds for embryonic stem-cell research.

“I look forward to working with the Jewish community in dealing with those and other objectives shunted to the back burner over the last six years,” Hoyer said.

He expressed frustration with the failure of the lame-duck Republican Congress to pass nine of 11 funding bills. That effectively crippled funding for 2007, Hoyer said, because it is logistically impossible to simultaneously budget for two years, and the legislative process for 2008 funding begins in February.

Focusing on 2008 means there will be no 2007 earmarks — the grants lawmakers funnel to their own communities — or new programs.

“We need to move on, and that’s going to hurt some people,” he said. “There are some critical earmarks that are going to substantially hurt programs in education, health and transport. The Republicans have taken their ball and gone home and are pouting.”

In one of its final acts this year, Congress passed the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act.

Hoyer suggested that the 110th Congress — the first led by Democrats since 1994 — would continue to advocate the isolation of a Palestinian Authority led by Hamas, a terrorist group, while seeking ways to bolster Mahmoud Abbas, the relatively moderate P.A. president from Fatah.

“Hamas has no willingness to give up its major intention, its policy of eliminating Israel,” Hoyer said. “There is a majority in the Congress that oppose and sanction Palestinian terrorists, whether or not they’re pretending to be politicians.”

Hoyer is especially close with Howard Friedman, a Baltimore-area constituent who is president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a past JTA president.

AIPAC has made clear — obliquely, through backgrounders distributed to the media — that it opposes the Iraq commission’s call to open channels to Iran and Syria.

Bush already has bluntly rejected the commission’s recommendation that greater engagement with Syria and Iran could help contain Iraq’s burgeoning civil war.

Those nations will remain off limits, Bush has said, until they stop backing terrorism and — in Iran’s case — cooperate with nuclear inspectors.

Iran and Syria want compensation for merely talking, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week, “and that’s a problem.”

That approach is a dead end, Hoyer said.

Talking “does not mean you talk to make a deal that is not in the interests of America or its allies, and Israel is an important ally,” Hoyer said.

He said Congress would use all its tools to encourage such talks, including hearings, resolutions and appropriations.

That could raise concerns in some sectors of the pro-Israel community and encourage others. Groups like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League already have excoriated the Iraq Study Group, saying it handed an undeserved plum to rejectionists.

“The report provides an insufficient rationale for such a gentle approach to so recalcitrant and menacing an adversary,” the AJCommittee said of Iran.

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said he was not overly concerned because Hoyer was voicing what long has been the Democratic credo of engagement.

“Steny is and will continue to support Israel as part of a bipartisan effort, but he’s also a Democrat, and the Democrats’ position on these and other issues is talk to everybody,” Foxman said.

The more dovish pro-Israel groups welcome opening up such channels.

“A reassessment of America’s policy toward Syria could serve Israel’s interests, not just in terms of peaceful relations with Syria,” said Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. “It could serve greatly a peace accord between Israel and Lebanon, defanging Hezbollah and having a positive impact on Israel’s relations with Arab states outside the immediate circle of Israel’s neighbors, as well as Israel-Palestinians.”

Israel is watching the developments closely. Israelis across the political spectrum advocate tough sanctions against Iran until it stops enriching uranium, a key step in manufacturing a nuclear weapon.

Hoyer said Congress would remain vigilant about Iran’s nuclear capability.

“The mere fact of talking does not mean you’re going to agree with an Iran that says, ‘If we get out of Iraq you’ll get off our backs on nuclear weapons,’ ” he said. “We believe a nuclear-armed Iran is a danger to the Middle East, to America and to national security.”

A pro-Israel activist said the community was not opposed in principle to talk, as long as it wasn’t a means for rogue regimes to buy time.

“It’s good if you deliver a tough line and then see what Syria is going to do about it,” the activist said.

There are growing pressures inside and outside the Israeli government to investigate recent calls by Syria’s Assad regime for a resumption of peace talks with no preconditions.

This week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acknowledged to his Cabinet that one critical factor determining his rejection of Assad’s overtures was President Bush’s opposition.

Olmert later met with five U.S. senators, including Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and three other Republicans, and said they strongly opposed engagement with Syria.

The senators “discussed the Baker-Hamilton report and emphasized that in their view, while the report has led to a broad political discussion, it will not necessarily become U.S. policy, including regarding opposition to a dialogue with Iran and Syria,” Olmert’s office said.

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