Eliot Engel Doesn’t Like Obama’s Israel Policy

Representative Eliot Engel expects the Obama administration to call him sometime over the next week to enlist his support in a new effort to exert tougher and more public pressure against Israeli settlements.  

He said they won't like his answer.

"What concerns me, frankly, about both the statements of the secretary of state and the president is that once again Israel is being asked to make unilateral concessions in return for I don't know what," said Engel.

He said he hoped the strong words Obama and especially Clinton had used in reference to settlements were only motivated by an effort to strengthen Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to show the Palestinian public that "the radical Hamas is not the way to go."

Engel said he didn't understand, tangibly, what Abbas could offer in return, and said he disliked the new tone and policy of the Obama administration.

Engel once championed Hillary Clinton as an irreducible supporter of Israel in New York, but disapproved of the statements she made against settlements. (Obama, she said, "wants to see a stop to settlements–not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions.")

"I don't think there ought to be outposts and I don't think there ought to be new settlements, but I think natural growth is natural growth. I don't see how it's fair if a family has a house in one of the blocks of the settlements and they have more children and want to add to that house, I don't think that ought to be stopped. This sort of ironclad clamping down on natural expansion of settlements is misguided."

He added, "If natural growth is used as a masquerade to have major construction then I'd say that's not particularly helpful, but if it is just to simply expand for the people who are living there then I think you cannot ask them to abandon that."

Engel argued that the Obama administration's demands risked making a mockery out of the authority of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"I don't know how any Israeli leader, or any leader of any foreign country, can appear to be succumbing to blatant and public U.S. pressure. I don't know how Netanyahu stays in power if he is perceived as totally crumbling and totally capitulating," he added. "Say Netanyahu bows to this pressure and says, 'OK, OK, OK, we're going to do this, we're going to do that,' what happens next?"

That is diametrically opposed to the analysis reached by Martin Indyk, who is director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, a former United States ambassador to Israel and a well known Israel hawk. Today in The New York Times he is quoted as saying, "This approach is predicated on the assumption that an Israeli prime minister needs a tough American president to justify tough decisions to an Israeli public. People in the American Jewish community and in Israel are sick of settlement activity. The whole zeitgeist has changed."

Engel said, "I love Martin," but added, "I don't think that's true, I would disagree with that." That policy, he said, would make Netanyahu a "toady of the United States."  

Engel did say that people in the American Jewish community who have always been against settlements would now perhaps "be more vocal," but he didn't see major changes in attitudes about Israel afoot. Instead he expected condemnation from Republicans and discomfort among Democrats like himself for the remarks coming from the Obama administration.

Instead of curtailing settlements, Engel said, "asking the government to declare a two-state solution" would be a "more reasonable request."