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Senators Stretch Legs in Mideast

July 22, 2010 By:
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Sen. Bob Casey (left) is shown rocket remains by Sederot Mayor David Buskila; the southern Israeli city has been hit hard by Hamas actions.
July's been a busy month for Pennsylvania's two Democratic senators -- at least on the foreign front.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey -- soon to be the state's senior senator -- returned July 11 from a nine-day, six-nation tour of the region that included stops in Israel and the West Bank. It was the second time in as many years that the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Middle East led a delegation of lawmakers to the Jewish state.

And on July 13, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter -- who is leaving office at year's end after losing the Democratic primary -- returned from a jaunt to Israel and Syria to help revive dialogue there.

The trips came on the heels of a rocky period in U.S.-Israel relations, with highly public disputes over settlements and the direction of the peace process. The July 6 White House meeting between Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama was designed, in part, to temper perceptions.

Casey said that despite the recent tensions, he is hopeful that progress can be made in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.

"There is a full recognition that this is a moment that is not going to come again. If something doesn't move forward in the next six months, you are not going to make any progress on this in a number of years," Casey said by phone after his return.

He has largely been supportive of Obama's peacemaking efforts, although he said that too much focus has been placed on the settlement issue.

When pressed, the lawmaker from Scranton said that he hadn't heard anything specific hinting that either side, particularly the Palestinians, had softened their stance -- though he did say he'd learned that representatives of the Israeli and Palestinian sides are speaking unofficially.

Both camps recognize the real threat posed by Iran, he said, and he described a tangible sense that "this is a moment where progress can be made."

His senate delegation included U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and U.S. Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.). Casey said several Republicans had been invited, but declined to participate. The group also made stops in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon and Egypt.

In addition to meeting with Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon, the senators traveled to Ramallah and met Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Casey praised Fayyad's efforts to build up the Palestinian economy and institutions.

In meeting with Palestinian Authority officials, Casey noted that there was no word on when its leadership might be willing to engage in direct talks with Israel. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to meet with Netanyahu.

According to recent news reports, Abbas has said that he would only be willing to meet if talks began with the assumption that Israel would eventually relinquish all territory captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. Netanyahu, who has agreed to the direct talks being pressed by the Obama administration, has said that any meeting should take place without preconditions.

Casey, who also briefed Jewish leaders in a private meeting on Monday at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City, said in the interview that he had asked Kuwaiti and Iraqi officials -- who maintain ties with Iran -- to press for the release of three American hikers, including Elkins Park native Joshua Fattal, who have been held in Iran for more than a year.

Casey has said that he and Specter hadn't coordinated their trips, and that he lauded his colleague's efforts in Syria.

Specter, who has long advocated dialogue with Syria and has visited the nation more than 20 times during his career, met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and conveyed the message that the Jewish state was ready to restart talks, said an aide.

The five-term Jewish senator has often walked a political tightrope, saying that only the Israelis can decide whether or not to give up the Golan -- seen as a condition for Syria to even contemplate an accord -- while arguing that a window for a deal exists.

He was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette saying that the discussions went well: "I am talking to people about it, and it's in the percolation stage." There's also been some speculation that he could be angling for the role of the Obama administration's special envoy to Syria. 

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