Muslim lawmakers praise speech; GOP critical

Some Republican leaders said Thursday that President Obama’s speech in Egypt was too tough on Israel, while the two Muslim lawmakers in Congress gave the president high marks.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said they were troubled by parts of the speech.

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Cantor, the only Jewish House Republican, said Obama placed too great an emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian effort to resolve their differences, instead of focusing more on the trouble that a nuclear-armed Iran poses to the Middle East.

“What we’ve got to do when the president returns is to again make sure that it is not the Palestinian-Israeli dispute [that] comes first and then we deal with Iran … instead, it is the other way around,” Cantor told The Hill.

The two Muslim House members, Democrats Andre Carson (Ind.) and Keith Ellison (Minn.), lauded Obama.

“I was happy that he was firm on them recognizing Israel’s right to exist — Israel has an absolute right to exist; we have to protect their right; but we also have to work toward a two-state solution,” Carson told The Hill.

Ellison also thought the president’s remarks were spot-on. He echoed Carson’s remarks that Obama was firm with both the Israelis and Palestinians.

The Minnesota Democrat also appreciated Obama's indirect reference to him.

"I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America's story," Obama said. "When the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Quran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library."

Boehner and Pence said they were alarmed that Obama placed a “moral equivalency” between the interests of Israel, a key U.S. ally in the region, and Palestine, which they say has not been aggressive enough in eradicating terrorist elements in its midst.

Pence was particularly upset that Obama focused on the issue of settlements without mentioning attacks by Hamas. The president missed a "great opportunity" to address that problem, he said.

On the whole, however, the GOP leaders applauded Obama’s effort to reach out to Muslim nations. Boehner called the speech thoughtful and optimistic.

In his address, Obama told a packed auditorium at Cairo University in Egypt that the U.S. bond with Israel is “unbreakable,” but he also pressed the U.S. ally to be more proactive in implementing Arab-Israeli peace accords.

“Palestinians must abandon violence,” while Israel’s construction of settlements breaks “previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace,” he said.

Jewish Democrats also welcomed Obama’s remarks regarding Israel and Palestine.

“I’ve watched Israel since it was born, and I’ve watched the window open for peace and I’ve seen it close,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “I’ve seen all kinds of conferences and attempts at solutions, and they all have failed. There is one hope, and it’s a two-state solution.”

Likewise, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said Obama presented the right “formula for peace” in the Middle East by setting out parameters for both groups of people.

“The president is, I believe, saying that if he gets some progress made with the Israelis on the settlement issues and with the Palestinians on security issues, that’s a great way to get started,” Cardin said. “I can’t disagree with that.”

Senate Republicans were united in condemning Obama’s statement that he would accept an Iran with peaceful nuclear power.

“That would represent a fairly naïve point of view,” said GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.). “Iran and North Korea have some things in common, and one thing is that they’re not very trustworthy when it comes to their nuclear program.”

Feinstein responded to that by noting that nuclear inspectors under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can assuage those concerns, and that isolating countries like Iran and North Korea only encourages their nuclear ambitions.

“That’s why you have the IAEA. That’s why you can have 24-hour, 7-days-a-week, 365-days-per-year supervision on-site,” she said. “Diplomacy is important in all of this. The more you isolate a nation, the more you drive that nation into the position of using nuclear prowess as a way to gain stature.”

But GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.) balked at that sentiment, saying Iran has resisted nuclear inspections.

“Iran is going to have to demonstrate its responsibility before we give them credit for being responsible,” he said.