Fresh off summer-recess visits to Israel, several key lawmakers are intensifying the push to pass legislation aimed at isolating Iran.
U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who led a trip to Israel last week involving 18 members of Congress, told JTA that Israeli leaders depicted the Iran issue as most urgent. The delegation met with Israel’s prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister, opposition leader and president.
“All of us came back with a renewed sense of the importance of dealing with Iran, of the dangers that a nuclear armed Iran would pose to the region and the international community,” Hoyer said. “There is a sense that Ahmadinejad is one of the few world leaders who expresses the possibility of the elimination of another sovereign nation — Israel — and hopes to eliminate from the Middle East the United States of America.”
The renewed pushed could produce a clash between Congress and President Bush. Though the president also backs Iran’s isolation, he opposes attempts by lawmakers to dictate the foreign policy of his administration.
The House passed two bills prior to the summer break aimed at Iran’s isolation: One targets U.S. corporations that create foreign subsidiaries to evade restrictions on dealing with Iran’s energy sector; another measure provides legal protection to states that divest from Iran. Florida had divested its pensions from Iran and a number of other states are close to passing similar legislation.
Both those bills are now under consideration in the Senate, where they are expected to pass.
Bush might object to broader legislation sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that would extend sanctions to any third party having dealings with Iran’s nuclear sector — and restrict the president’s ability to waive such sanctions.
Hoyer says he hopes to accelerate the passage of the Lantos legislation. He says the measure has 323 sponsors — a number substantially greater than the 291 votes that would be needed to override a veto by Bush.
“There will be renewed activity in the Congress,” Hoyer said.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House’s minority deputy whip and its sole Jewish GOP member, said the Republican caucus was also committed to the Lantos legislation. Cantor led 17 other Republicans on his own Israel tour a week before Hoyer’s delegation.
“There is overwhelming bipartisan support for that legislation,” Cantor told JTA. “The sense in Congress is that we’ve got to do everything we can to isolate the clerics in Iran from global finance.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee welcomed the accelerated push for tougher sanctions on Iran. “By strengthening the sanctions against Iran, Congress is sending a strong message that America and our allies will use all economic pressures available to encourage the regime to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said.
In addition to the two congressional delegations, Lantos and the chairman of the House’s Middle East subcommittee, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), also toured Israel this month.
Hoyer said he was unsettled by what he described as the relative lack of urgency among Europeans and others about Iran. A nuclear Iran would exert greater controls over oil markets, he said.
“Russia and Europe and China have economies that are reliant on foreign products. They should have concern over such a destabilizing reality,” he said.
It is critical, Hoyer said, to make certain that Iran know all options are on the table. Stressing that he was speaking for himself and not his Israeli interlocutors, he added: “Clearly no one believes that you can take the military option off the table given the serious threat that would exist to the region and the international economy of a nuclear armed Iran.”
Cantor and Hoyer also met with Palestinian Authority leaders. Cantor said he was stung when he learned that the authority had released funds to 3,500 Hamas fighters a day after P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad had assured him that his government was maintaining no contacts with the terrorist group now running the Gaza Strip. Cantor wrote Fayyad demanding an explanation.
Hoyer later raised the issue with Fayyad, who apologized and provided an explanation. A computer error was responsible for the payment, he said. Fayyad was apprised of it within 45 minutes and managed to stop payment to about two thirds of the fighters. In the end, about 1,200 Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip were paid.
Israeli leaders and U.S. diplomats, who trust Fayyad, Hoyer said, accepted that explanation. “Fayyad is perceived as a credible interlocutor,” he said. Still, he added, his congressional delegation emphasized to Fayyad that “doing business with Hamas would undermine any willingness in Congress in terms of trying to assist the Fayyad government and Palestinian Authority.”
Bush has pledged to use $270 million in already appropriated funds to assist the Palestinians in his push for a two-state solution. Congress can’t withdraw the funds, but it can slow their disbursement through oversight.
Cantor said he had also heard from Fayyad, in a letter and a phone call.
“I reiterated that no matter what was the cause, the U.S. taxpayers do not want to see their hard-earned dollars going to terrorists in the Middle East,” he said. “I assured him this incident will raise the awareness of sending taxpayers dollars to the Palestinian Authority. I am very cautious in going forward because of this.”
In his interview with JTA, Hoyer discussed Bush’s push to increase annual U.S. military assistance to Israel from $2.4 billion to $3 billion and to sell Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states $20 billion in arms.
The Israeli component would sail through Congress, he predicted.
Israelis supported the Saudi package, with reservations engendered by fears that the pro-Western Saudi leadership could one day lose its hold on power.
“Let us presume for a moment that the Saud family would not use those weapons offensively, but there are Islamic radicals who want to overthrow the Saudis,” Hoyer said. “You’re not always sure they control the weapons.”
Hoyer said he was told that top Israeli security officials had reviewed the sale’s particulars, although these have not yet been released by the Bush administration. Israelis sought assurances that the weapons would be defensive. One view expressed by Israeli President Shimon Peres was that since the Saudis would ultimately get the weapons, it was better that they come from the United States than from elsewhere.
“Their major concern was maintaining a qualitative edge,” Hoyer said. “There was a conclusion the edge would be maintained.”
The Israeli with the greatest reservations, he said, was opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Netanyahu expressed the worry about guided missiles that could be more precise,” he said.