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Interview

New House foreign affairs head looks to resume US aid to Palestinians

NY Democrat Gregory Meeks rules out conditioning defense aid to Israel on accepting a Palestinian state, but indicates Congress will support efforts to reenter Iran nuclear deal

US Rep. Gregory Meeks speaks during a news conference outside the USPS Jamaica station, Aug. 18, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
US Rep. Gregory Meeks speaks during a news conference outside the USPS Jamaica station, Aug. 18, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Tuesday the United States would look to resume aid to the Palestinians as he voiced hope for reviving a multilateral approach to the world under President-elect Joe Biden.

In an interview with AFP, Representative Gregory Meeks also called for a fresh look at the Venezuelan crisis and vowed to use his role to press human rights concerns he said had been ignored under outgoing US President Donald Trump.

Meeks said he would look to expand humanitarian aid including to the Palestinians after the staunchly pro-Israel Trump cut off nearly all funding to them, including contributions to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

“I’m a firm believer in the two-state solution, providing both parties with self-determination, because that’s the only way I believe that we can ensure a Jewish state of Israel that is viable and a peaceful Palestinian state, where they end up becoming interdependent in trade and other mechanisms,” Meeks said.

Palestinian students affiliated with the United Nations ‘UNRWA’ wear face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic, in Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip, on November 25, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

“So we may need to restart the US assistance to Palestinian people, demonstrating that the United States is ready to lead again,” he said.

The Trump administration cut hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid to the PA after relations between Ramallah and Washington soured over the White House’s December 6, 2017, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The US has since cut all aid to the Palestinians, including to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence programs and six East Jerusalem hospitals.

Israel has long pushed for the closure of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), arguing it helps perpetuate the conflict with the Palestinians. It criticizes its method of classifying Palestinian refugees since their descendants are also eligible for the status.

A Palestinian rides on a pickup carrying sacks of food aid provided by UNRWA in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on June 25, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Meeks played down the prospect of leveraging aid to Israel to pressure it to accept a Palestinian state, saying he did not want to touch a $38 billion, decade-spanning defense package approved by former president Barack Obama in 2016 before leaving office.

“I’m not for altering any of those dollars,” Meeks said. “There may be other dollars not included therein that we can possibly look at.”

Meeks also promised a supportive role from Congress as Biden attempts to restart diplomacy with Iran after Trump pulled out of Obama’s nuclear accord and slapped sweeping sanctions on the cleric-run state.

“If you look at what President Trump has done in his maximum pressure campaign, the big question you ask yourself is has it made America safer. The answer is a big capital no,” Meeks said.

The New York congressman, who is the first African-American to lead the committee, won the chairmanship in a contest against Representative Joaquin Castro, who had vowed to champion the voices of Palestinians amid rising criticism in the Democratic Party of Israel’s rightward turn.

Meeks succeeded Eliot Engel, a passionate defender of Israel, who lost his seat in a primary challenge from his left.

Venezuelans laughing

Meeks charged that Trump, who is angrily pressuring allies to overturn his election defeat, had laid bare hypocrisy in his two-year drive to topple Venezuela’s leftist leader Nicolas Maduro.

“Clearly, this administration is not on the right track. In fact, I think many individuals in Venezuela are laughing because, to me, what Trump is doing with this election is very similar to what Maduro has tried to do in Venezuela,” Meeks said.

Meeks has traveled several times to Venezuela and met Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez, with Obama sending the congressman to represent the United States at the leftist firebrand’s funeral in 2013.

Democratic Representative Yvette Clarke of New York speaks at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, January 2, 2020, in New York. Behind her, from left, are fellow Democratic Rep.s Grace Meng, Eliot Engel, Gregory Meeks, Carolyn Maloney, Max Rose, and Hakeem Jeffries. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Meeks said that the United States needs to be “working collectively in a multilateral way” with regional players and international organizations.

“We can’t come in and say this is who your president is. That’s not our role; that’s the role of the Venezuelan people,” Meeks said.

Meeks stopped short of saying Biden should reverse Trump’s recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, a position backed by most Latin American and European nations after 2018 elections widely seen as fraudulent and an economic crisis that led 5.4 million people to flee Venezuela.

He acknowledged election irregularities under Maduro and said that any solution needs to focus on repairing institutions, including bringing the opposition into the election commission.

Pressure on Bolsonaro

In one area of sharp divergence with the outgoing administration, Meeks promised to promote human rights in Brazil, whose far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, is an ideological bedfellow of Trump.

Meeks said he wanted to discuss with Bolsonaro the marginalization of the Afro-Brazilian, indigenous and LGBTQ communities and would seek common cause with Brazilian lawmakers and NGOs.

“There’s a role for everybody to play, and if we can get on the same page and start talking and putting the same pressure on the Bolsonaros of the world, I believe we can have a major impact.”

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report

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