Senators ask Obama to lean on Arab states

A group of 71 senators that includes senior leaders from both parties sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Monday to press Arab states to recommit to peace with Israel.

The effort, led by Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), is being promoted and circulated by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and comes two months after Obama’s June 4 speech in Cairo.

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Including signatures by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the letter essentially states that Israel’s efforts toward peace are not being met with equal efforts by Arab states. A similar, bipartisan letter was sent by 226 House members last week to Saudi Arabia, calling on that country’s leaders to deepen their commitment to peace with Israel.

The letter essentially suggests that Obama’s remarks in Cairo, along with recent statements by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, are not being heeded by Arab nations.

“We applaud these comments and agree with you and Secretary Clinton that Arab states must do more to end their isolation of Israel,” the senators wrote Obama.

In an editorial published Sunday in the Dubai-based Khaleej Times, Dr, Ghassan Michel Rubeiz defended Arab states from the accusatory tone of the Bayh-Risch letter. Rubeiz, former Middle East secretary for the World Council of Churches, notes that Arab nations offered a peace plan in 2002 that allowed Israel 78 percent of disputed land.

“What more 'dramatic steps' should Arab States be offering, in response to the letter?” Rubeiz wrote. “The senators from Indiana and Idaho should realise that the Arab states are not in a position now to make new promises beyond the 2002 peace plan, which in itself was a far reaching and dramatic offer.”

The Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative calls on Israel to retreat to 1967 borders, "attain a just solution" to the issue of Palestinian refugees and relinquish East Jerusalem to become capital of a Palestinian state. In return, Arab states promise to normalize relations with Israel.  

The Bayh-Risch letter also defends Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying the leader has endorsed the idea of a so-called “two-state solution” and wants to resume peace talks, and that Israeli officials have been working to improve life in Palestinian territories.

“These actions have demonstrated that Israel is willing to back up its words with concrete actions, even in the face of continuing threats to its security,” the letter reads. “We encourage Arab leaders to take similar tangible steps to demonstrate their commitment to the peace process.”

Specifically, the senators ask Obama to encourage the Arab League to end its boycott of Israel and establish normal trade, tourism and athletic relations with the country, as well as hold diplomatic talks with Israeli officials. The letter also asks the Arab League to end its boycott of Israel and to cease propaganda campaigns that “demonize” the country.

“Such gestures would send a powerful signal that Arab nations are committed to the peace process and could help usher in a new era of peace and security in the Middle East,” the letter reads.

Rubeiz, however, said the letter does not help Israel’s efforts and actually threatens peace talks by unreasonably strengthening Netanyahu’s bargaining position. The letter, he wrote, is based on a “misconception.”

“On the surface, the senators’ letter looks fair and balanced; it demands that all sides work for peace,” Rubeiz wrote. “But the pivotal message of the letter is that Arab states are not doing their best for peace, whereas Israel is.”