Last week, Casey returned to the Jewish state under very different circumstances — as a senator playing a pivotal role in foreign affairs, and hoping to bridge some of the differences between Israel and the United States.
"I don't profess to speak for the president or the administration, nor do I represent them. I'm a senator, and I have my own views, and am part of a separate and co-equal branch of government," said Casey, who has voiced support for President Barack Obama's commitment to the peace process, but has stopped short of endorsing his position on the hot-button issue of Israeli settlements.
A member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the senator from Scranton, Pa., was selected earlier this year to chair its subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, which focuses on a host of troubled spots, including the Middle East.
Casey led a delegation of lawmakers to Israel and Turkey, including U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) They met with top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni.
The group also traveled to the West Bank to look at American-funded projects there, but did not meet with high-level Palestinian officials, partly because of timing, according to Casey. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was on his way to Washington to meet with Obama.
Settlements Rear Their Heads
The May 27 meeting with Netanyahu came as relations between the United States and Israel appear strained over West Bank settlements. That issue has soured relations in the past, including between Netanyahu's first administration and the Clinton White House and, in the early 1990s, between Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President George H.W. Bush, when relations reached a low point.
Now, upping the pressure, Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have called on the Israelis to halt the expansion of all settlements in the West Bank, including what Israeli politicians refer to as "natural growth."
Obama — set to address the Muslim world with a speech in Cairo — has said that the United States needs to be more honest in its dealings with Israel.
Netanyahu stated that while Israel would not build new settlements and would dismantle illegal West Bank outposts, it would not put a halt to natural growth construction within the municipal boundaries of legal settlements.
Unlike many of his congressional colleagues who are weighing in on the issue, Casey has yet to stake out a position.
Speaking in a phone interview on Monday, just back from his weeklong trip, the senator said that both sides make a strong case, and he's still weighing the arguments.
"I'm going to spend a lot of time on this because it's an important process, but it's not the only difficult issue that has to be resolved," said Casey, who is considered close to Obama.
Addressing the concern that the U.S. and Israeli administrations are headed for a confrontation, Casey said: "It's real early; this has just begun. This is a new administration, this is a new Congress, it's a new prime minister — it's a new day.
"There is too much emphasis placed on singular events," he added. "We've got a long way to go, and there is a lot more work to be done."
Larry Smar, Casey's spokesman, said that the lawmaker hopes to serve as a broker of sorts between Netanyahu and Obama.
"The administration and Netanyahu are pretty well staked out, and there is a lot of daylight between them right now," said Smar. "If there is some brokering that needs to be done, and there is room for negotiations and wiggle room, he'll try to play a role."
Betsy R. Sheerr, a longtime supporter who traveled with Casey on his first trip to Israel, said that before he left last week, the senator had requested a meeting with members of the local Jewish community to hear different viewpoints. About 20 people talked with Casey in Sheerr's Center City home several days before he left for Israel; a follow-up meeting is planned for later this month.
"He sees himself as playing a major role in future U.S.-Israel dealings. There is a tremendous comfort level between him and Israeli officials," said Sheerr, who sits on the board of the Jewish Publishing Group, which includes the Jewish Exponent.
Eve Biskind Klothen, who described herself as one of the more dovish people in the room, said that Casey is "very interested in being a team player who can work toward a solution of the problem. The more people he hears from, the more knowledge he gains, the better his opinion."
Quiet and unassuming, in many ways he couldn't be more different from his colleague, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) , who recently switched parties and who regularly generates more headlines.
But those who know Casey well said that his relaxed manner obscures his drive, work ethic and intellectual curiosity. Supporters say that his cautious approach over the settlements issue is indicative of his deliberative approach to policy.
He has consistently spoken about the Iranian threat on the Senate floor, and has strongly pushed for legislation that would increase sanctions on Iran and encourage public funds to divest from companies that do business there.
Casey said that, not surprisingly, he found tremendous alarm among Israel's top officials about Iran. But he said that both the Iranian nuclear threat and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are pressing American concerns that need to be confronted.
"We don't have the luxury of saying we're going to work on one and get that done to help on the other," he said. "Even if there was peace in the Middle East right now, we have to be as aggressive, as focused and as determined on the issue of Iran's nuclear threat as we are now."
Both Casey and Specter were among the 76 senators who signed a May 20 letter to Obama encouraging U.S. involvement in the peace process, but ensuring "that any settlement reached takes into accounts risks" that Israel "will face in any peace agreement."
When Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he selected Casey to replace him to head the Near East subcommittee.
Casey said that for now, the subcommittee is focused on confirming nominations for State Department postings, but he said that he soon hopes to hold monthly hearings on issues. The peace process, he said, is on his list of topics.
"It's very unusual to have a freshman in his third year in the Senate to have the prominent position that he has," said Marc Felgoise, a local pro-Israel activist who backed Santorum in 2006, but now considers Casey one of the Jewish state's staunchest supporters in Washington. "Look where he was; look who he just met with."