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NM House members oppose Obama on Israel vote

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

WASHINGTON – Add the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the list of contentious issues the U.S. House and Senate are grappling with in the early days of the 115th Congress.

Rep. Steve Pearce

Rep. Steve Pearce

And count New Mexico’s own lawmakers as among those at least somewhat divided on the issue. All three House members were critical of last month’s U.N. resolution condemning Israel’s settlements policy, but the state’s senators voiced support for the Obama administration’s position that allowed the condemnation to go forward.

After fiery speeches from both sides of the aisle on Thursday, the House voted 342-80 to condemn the United Nations Security Council for its official criticism of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – even though the U.S. did not oppose it.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Obama’s representative at the U.N., Samantha Power, raised her hand to abstain from the Security Council’s vote on Dec. 23, allowing its condemnation of the Israeli settlements to gain formal approval. The abstention – instead of a veto – angered Israel and many in Congress, who characterized it as a slap in the face of America’s longtime ally in the Middle East, and damaging to U.S.-Israeli relations.

The Israeli government went further and accused the Obama administration of engineering the entire vote – a charge the U.S. denies.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján

Rep. Ben Ray Luján

“This marked a staggering change in U.S. policy at the United Nations, where both Democrat and Republican administrations of the past have swiftly vetoed one-sided, anti-Israel resolutions,” said Rep. Steve Pearce, the New Mexico delegation’s lone Republican.

Democratic Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham also supported the Republican-led rebuke of the U.N. in Congress last week, as did 107 additional House Democrats.

“The special relationship the United States has with Israel means we have a critical role to play in the negotiation of a lasting peace settlement, and we must remain firm in our commitment to the safety and security of Israel,” Luján said.

Sen. Martin Heinrich

Sen. Martin Heinrich

A similar bipartisan resolution to reprimand the U.N. has been introduced in the Senate.

A spokesman for Lujan Grisham, who has announced a campaign for governor of New Mexico in 2018, said her vote “illustrated her continued support for America’s bond with Israel.”

“She also co-sponsored a resolution that reaffirms America’s commitment to work with Israelis and Palestinians to create the conditions for successful final-status peace negotiations,” spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said.

The U.N. resolution was approved 14-0 last month with only the U.S. abstaining. It demands that Israel immediately “cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem” and says the settlements are a “flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”

Sen. Tom Udall

Sen. Tom Udall

Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, said after the vote that he was confident that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s administration would take a different approach.

“I have no doubt that the new U.S. administration … will usher in a new era in terms of the U.N.’s relationship with Israel,” he said.

The Anti-Defamation League, which works to fight anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination, expressed “outrage” at the U.N. vote. The league said Thursday that the House action “sends an important signal about the deep bench of support in Congress for Israel and for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

But the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights called the U.N. resolution “consistent with fifty years of stated bipartisan U.S. opposition to Israeli settlements and recapitulates the international community’s long-standing consensus on this issue.” The pro-Palestinian group also noted that the resolution does not threaten to sanction Israel if it refuses to comply.

Udall, Heinrich

While New Mexico’s Democratic House members voted to rebuke the U.N. on Thursday, and both of the state’s Democratic senators affirmed their support for Israel and a two-state solution to peace last week, the senators also said Obama had little choice but to direct his representative to abstain.

Sen. Tom Udall, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations and Appropriations Committees, told the Journal he will continue to support the billions of dollars in aid the U.S. sends to Israel for its defense, but that he “understands and respects” the Obama administration’s decision.

“Violence against Israel by Palestinians must stop, and Israel must recognize that settlement growth is a barrier to peace,” Udall said. “These principles have been a key tenet of U.S. policy for decades under both Republican and Democratic presidents, and I understand and respect the president and Secretary (John) Kerry’s actions at the United Nations.”

Israel contends that by declaring the settlements illegal, the U.N. has given Palestinians and terror groups like Hamas a major concession without requiring anything in return.

As Republicans criticized Obama for the U.N. abstention, Democrats said the president deserved credit for engineering last year’s new, long-term security agreement that gives Israel $38 billion in U.S. military aid, including $5 billion for missile defenses.

Eitan Levon, Israel’s consul general in Houston, who represents the nation’s interests in a six-state region including New Mexico and Texas, said the U.N.’s action was counter to “long-standing policy” and does not recognize a “consistent refusal by the Palestinians to accept the Jewish state.”

“This (peace) must be negotiated directly between the parties, so in doing so, the Security Council actually rewards the Palestinian strategy of avoiding negotiations and compromise, which is very important from our point of view,” Levon said. “The settlement is one issue … but we need to sit at the table together. We are ready to speak on any subject.

“I believe the true problem is that we are not at all accepted in the region.”

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have not met for peace talks since U.S.-sponsored negotiations collapsed in May 2014.

Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld of Congregation Albert, Albuquerque’s largest synagogue, declined to comment on the U.N. resolution or congressional action last week.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., assigned blame for continued Israeli-Palestinian conflict to both sides. But he said aggressive encroachment of Israeli territories in the Palestinian-held West Bank gave the U.N. little choice but to condemn it.

“For decades, presidents from both parties have recognized the necessity of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Heinrich said. “Standing in the way of peace is the incitement of violence and terror by Palestinians. Holding us back from a final resolution to conflict is the construction of Israeli settlements deep in the West Bank. These destructive actions must come to an end.

“This is the reality that was outlined and condemned in the U.N. Security resolution,” Heinrich added. “We know that we need a different outcome and that the administration’s hand was forced by these events to try and break the cycle of conflict in pursuit of a two-state solution.”

Simmering tensions

Obama and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu have long endured a frosty relationship, and Pearce said the U.S. president “put personal vendettas before the survival of our strongest ally, threatening their security in an already tumultuous region” in directing the U.N. abstention.

Meanwhile, late last week Republicans – who now control the House, Senate and, soon, the White House – were considering putting together a legislative proposal to slash funding at the U.N., where the United States currently foots 22 percent of the annual bill.

“I am eager to continue working to reinforce our relationship with Israel and ensure they do not doubt our support,” Pearce said.

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