The best way for Israel and the Palestinians to forge a peace agreement is with the United States closely engaged in the situation, two local congressmen have argued.
Speaking at Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-District 7) said that the 2002 road map for peace — brokered by the United States and three other nations — was "conceptually the right thing to do," but stressed that U.S. officials have not been engaged enough since the process began.
"I believe diplomacy has to be something nitty-gritty, every day," Sestak said to the crowd of close to 100 people.
Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-District 6) said that in the short term, Israel should be looking for small but gradual gains toward peace. In the long term, however, he hopes that — with the help of the United States — Israel can "encourage and even embolden the more moderate elements of the region to rise up and become empowered."
Both congressmen — who are seeking re-election this year — addressed the crowd during the "Afternoon of Jewish Learning" sponsored by the Kehillot of Chester County and Delaware County.
After five years as a representative, Gerlach described support for Israel in Congress as "tremendous," and said that he doesn't see it waning any time soon.
"We see that every year in the appropriations process, where significant monies are provided to Israel for military assistance and economic aid," he stated.
On the Iranian nuclear threat, Sestak also called for tough diplomacy. His idea is to raise gas prices for the average Iranian by increasing the country's cost for oil-refinery products, 50 percent of which are imported, he said.
"We know there were gasoline riots when Iran raised the price from 25 cents to 35 cents, I think it was, for a gallon of gasoline," he said, noting that a hike in refinery products — implemented in response to a refusal to cease its nuclear program — could produce similar civilian unrest.
The United States missed the "unique opportunity" to rally the Arab world against Iran back in the summer of 2006, according to Sestak, when Saudi Arabia and others condemned Iran for supporting Hezbollah attacks against Israel.
"Saudi Arabia recognized that the real threat to it was not Israel, but Iran," added Sestak, noting that the United States should have brought those Arab nations together to put some pressure on Iran.
Both congressman started off their formal remarks by talking about personal visits to Israel and how that solidified their support for the Jewish state over the years.
Gerlach discussed traveling there several years ago and talking with not only political leaders but regular citizens, something that helped him "get a flavor" of the day-to-day needs of the country.
Sestak, a retired admiral in the U.S. Navy, described watching Israel change during the five trips he's made to the country over the years. The earliest, he said, dates back to the early 1970s.
"You really understand what that saying means — 'Never again' — from the top of Masada," he said.
Gerlach explained that last November's Arab-Israeli conference in Annapolis, Md., and subsequent efforts toward peace have been steps in the right direction; however, he's not sure how much effect it could have because of the reduced power of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the face of terror groups such as Hamas.
"We just have to keep that pressure on, and support Israel for the good friend and ally that she is," said Gerlach, "and, hopefully, there'll be a break to it at some point that will achieve some long-term solution."