At a Middle East Progress event at the Center for American Progress on Thursday, Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL) said all parties need to help bring about a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Wexler reinforced President Barack Obama’s speech last week to the U.N. General Assembly and stressed that the key to progress is that, “All leaders need to get out of the box that they have comfortably put themselves in because it does not challenge them in a domestic way.”
Wexler pointed to a recent opinion piece by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal as an example of the kind of risk averse position that was stymieing progress in the region. Prince Turki stated that the Saudis would not take any steps toward normalization until Israel withdrew from the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, and Shebaa Farms. The fact that Obama put the issue of Israeli settlements on the table involved a good deal of political risk for him, Wexler said, but it was the kind of risk that leaders need to start taking. “President Obama is in fact taking the same medicine that he’s asking all of the world’s leaders to take,” he said, “break out of the box, do something bold, take a step for peace that may cause you some challenge at home and then defend it.”
Wexler dismantled the notion that no progress on peace had been made since the president took office in January. “When people ask the question, ‘where are we?’ we need to put it into the context of, in January we were in the middle of a bloody conflict in Gaza, the Palestinians were still in total disarray in terms of Hamas and Fatah, President Abbas was weak, Hamas was on the rise…and President Obama walks into office…he jumps right in…into a scenario that is ready made for failure,” he explained.
But President Obama, he continued, “has created a different construct… And that construct is: It’s no longer just the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s the Israelis and the Palestinians joined with the entire Arab world, which is charged with responsibilities.” Wexler added that Obama had made clear that the resolution of the conflict is not only in America’s interest but the world’s interest as well.
The congressman didn’t shy from criticism that last week’s trilateral meeting between Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly did not produce the anticipated results. However, he argued that it was not the end of the process, but rather another step in an arduous journey. He recalled Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell’s statement on his efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland that, “we had 700 days of failure, and one day of success,” and he urged patience of those who criticized the president’s Middle East policy.
He also suggested that perhaps Netanyahu’s apparent victory in having any discussions without preconditions might actually give Netanyahu the strong hand to make the biggest concession on settlements that any Israeli prime minister had ever made. At the same time he strongly supported Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plan for building a de facto Palestinian state in two years’ time, calling it “the brightest statement ever enunciated by a Palestinian leader.” Such a plan would bring economic development, reformed governance, and a vision of the future to all parties, and in particular the Palestinians.
On Iran Wexler stressed that Obama’s leadership and urgency on the issue had made a strong impact despite Iran’s testing a missile earlier in the week. Russia would have never changed its policy on the use of sanctions on Iran and Iran would not be in Geneva today if Obama had not vigorously reacted last week when a previously undeclared nuclear facility in Iran was announced and if he hadn’t altered plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Ultimately, he claimed, Obama would have to make a stark choice because he will likely be judged historically on two matters: 75 percent on his handling of the economy and 25 percent on “whether or not Iran becomes a nuclear power on his watch.”
Ultimately Wexler was optimistic of President Obama’s engagement in the Middle East, stating that he signed on to the Obama campaign within the first month, knowing that, “here was a man who had a realistic vision of the role that America desperately needed to play…[and] that a policy of engagement was in the interest of the United States of America.”