WASHINGTON (JTA) — Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said declaring Israeli ownership of the Golan Heights was not “timely” while Syria was mired in civil war.
He counseled Israel to focus more on peace with the Palestinians.
“Syria is in a state of war, the whole area is in flux,” Cardin, D-Md., said Thursday when he was asked about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration this week that “The Golan Heights will forever remain in Israel’s hands.”
“I don’t think it’s timely to figure out what’s happening in the north when there is an active war in Syria,” Cardin said of Netanyahu.
“Ultimately you’re going to need to have some type of recognition factor and you don’t have a government you can negotiate with and talk with in Syria,” said Cardin, who was meeting foreign policy reporters during a break from Senate votes.
The Obama administration this week reiterated longstanding U.S. policy that the strategic plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War was not part of Israel, and that its fate should be determined through negotiations.
“I would love to see a peace process and deal with the West Bank and Gaza,” he said. “And that to me is the most important chapter for Israel right now, is to advance the peace process toward a two-state solution for the Palestinians and Israelis. That to me is the most urgent need.”
Cardin is close to pro-Israel groups and has made clear in the past that he believes it is wrong to place the burden on Israel to renew talks, saying that the Palestinians must end incitement and return to talks with Israel suspended in 2014.
He was one of just four Senate Democrats who voted last year against the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu vehemently opposed, and the senator was in the region just weeks ago, and met with Netanyahu.
Cardin also said he favors renewing the Iran Sanctions Act, due to expire this year, although Obama administration officials fear its renewal would rankle Iran and undercut the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal.
Cardin said there was broad agreement in Congress that the act needs renewing in order to keep in place sanctions that would be revived if Iran violates the deal. Obama administration officials say the president has the discretion to kick in sanctions should he need to.
The senator said he also hopes to pass new sanctions against Iran for testing ballistic missiles, a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Current Republican proposals to renew the Iran Sanctions Act or to sanction Iran for its missile testing seem aimed at undercutting the Iran deal, Cardin said, a path he opposes even though he voted against the deal.