House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who is leading a congressional delegation on a week-long trip to Israel, broke with U.S. policy on today and said the Jewish state should be allowed to build in disputed East Jerusalem.
Just two days after the State Department blasted Israel’s recent authorization of additional housing construction in the eastern section of the holy city, Hoyer told Politico in an interview that he sees the area as a Jewish neighborhood that must be expanded to accommodate growth.
“I view Jerusalem differently than I do other settlements,” he said. “Essentially, this is a Jewish neighborhood. It may be in East Jerusalem, but it’s a Jewish neighborhood and it’s expanding.”
On Tuesday, the State Department rebuked the Israeli government for approving a housing project of more than 900 units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, warning that such “unilateral actions work against efforts to resume direct negotiations and contradict the logic of a reasonable and necessary agreement between the parties.”
Hoyer took a different stance, however, and said he thinks the new housing project should not damage the peace process.
“This is not something that ought to undermine the much, much larger objective of reaching a peaceful resolution between the Palestinians and Israelis,” Hoyer told Politico.
Palestinians hope to establish the capital of their future state in East Jerusalem and are adamantly opposed to any Israel construction there.
On another topic, Hoyer also said he’s spent much of this week focused on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s bloody crackdown on demonstrators.
Hoyer said Assad has lost his legitimacy as the country’s leader, and added that he’s in full agreement with the increasingly tough stance President Barack Obama is taking toward the Syrian ruler.
“Clearly, a leader that murders his own people because they are demonstrating and advocating for freedom and democratic rights, that’s a leader that has lost legitimacy and ought not to be recognized by the international community as a legitimate leader,” Hoyer said.
As for the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Hoyer said Obama “has taken very significant steps.”
What comes next – presenting a plan for peace or hosting a peace summit, potentially – is something Hoyer said he’ll leave to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I think the president is engaged on this issue, and I think he and Secretary Clinton will have to make the best judgment as to when that could have the best effect and highest likelihood for success,” he said. “But certainly the president can and needs to play a constructive role, and intends to.”
Hoyer said the delegation of House Democrats has urged both Palestinians and Israelis to return to the negotiating table, and he expects the Republican representatives who will trek through the holy land later this August will do the same.
“The message that’s being sent is A.: Going to the U.N. is a bad idea and will undermine and not facilitate reaching an agreement,” Hoyer said of the Palestinian plan to seek recognition as a state from the world body in September. “And B.: Making a deal with Hamas would not be acceptable to Congress unless there’s a radical change to Hamas itself.”
For Hoyer, who is on his 12th trip to Israel, the peace process must remain a top priority across party lines and branches of government. “None of us have done enough until such time as it is resolved,” he said.
As the Hoyer winds down this visit – he and the rest of the delegation have met with many officials from both sides, including Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas since arriving Monday – he told Politico that he sees the summer excursions to Israel as “very, very important to inform members to make better policy decisions.”
“Israel is the one example in this region of a free and open democracy that shares the values of the United States,” Hoyer said. “It is important that members of Congress in such a volatile part of the world have a better and fuller understanding of the issues.”