Last week, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) led a Republican congressional mission to Israel and criticized the Obama administration for paying too much attention to settlements. This week, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) came to Israel and also displayed differences with the Obama administraiton — blaming the Palestinians for the lack of peace talks and suggesting that settlements were getting too much attention.
The head of a delegation of US Democratic members of Congress blamed the Palestinians on Thursday for failing to hold talks with Israel, calling it the "largest thing" impeding the peace process.
"I think the largest thing impeding the negotiations at this point is simply the unwillingness of (Palestinian president Mahmud) Abbas to sit down (with the Israelis)," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters in Jerusalem. …
Hoyer… said the issue of settlements should be addressed through direct negotiations and said if he had met Abbas during his delegation’s week-long visit to the region, he would have asked him to drop "preconditions."
"The United States’ policy has been for a stop to any additional settlements. That is a thorny, tough issue… It’s an issue that has to be solved at the negotiating table," he said.
And the independent Palestinian news agency Ma’an writes:
A senior member of US President Barack Obama’s party broke ranks on Thursday, blaming Palestinians for a lack of peace negotiations and casting doubt on calls for a settlement freeze.
"I don’t think settlements are nearly the big issue that confronts the Palestinians and the Israelis in reaching an agreement," said Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the American House majority leader, at a West Jerusalem news conference. …
During the visit Hoyer did not directly criticize Obama, but voiced significant doubts about the White House’s push for a freeze on the West Bank settlements, which are illegal under international law. Obama’s demand has been repeatedly rejected by Israel’s current government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. President Abbas has refused to resume negotiations until Israel complies with a freeze.
Asked by Ma’an whether, in light of his comments, the US still backs the Road Map peace plan, which calls for an immediate stop to settlement construction, Hoyer said, "US policy has not changed. US policy has been for a number of presidents, … the United States policy has been for a stop of any additional settlements."
Hoyer, reports Ma’an, also expressed sympathy for Israel’s arguments on settlements:
"Netanyahu’s standpoint and Israel’s standpoint is that if one of your children gets married and wants to live close to you, there needs to be a place to live [in a settlement]. That’s not an irrational argument. For the Palestinians’ point of view, that’s not a freeze. That’s not an irrational argument."
Hoyer also reiterated that in his view, settlements built in East Jerusalem (according to boundaries set by Israel) are not as objectionable as those in the rest of the West Bank.
"I personally perceive Jerusalem as a unified city. I continue to view it as a unified city," he said, articulating a view at odds with the US State Department, which has said that the demand for a freeze applies to all Israeli construction across the Green Line.