InterviewBernie Sanders is 'way wrong on Israeli-Palestinian crisis'

Top US Democrat downplays rift between his party and Netanyahu government

In Jerusalem, Congressman Eliot Engel dismisses concerns over colleagues Omar and Tlaib; says there is ‘nothing wrong’ with PM’s close alignment with Trump

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Visiting Jerusalem, leading Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel on Wednesday played down the apparent widening rift between his party and the Israeli government. While Democrats supportive of the Jewish state in Congress have “educating to do,” and many of his party colleagues dislike Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies, the relationship remains “strong” and will endure, he asserted.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Engel, the chairman of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, showed himself unperturbed by Netanyahu’s firm embrace of US President Donald Trump, opining that there was “nothing wrong” with the two men’s personal affinity for each other, since they see “eye to eye” on many issues.

The veteran lawmaker also said that he does not think a future Democratic president would consider moving the US Embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and expressed doubt at the current administration’s strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“Yes, there are some things that I think we need to bring more up to date, convince some people of some things,” he said in response to a question about what appears to be a widening gap between Israel’s right-wing government and increasingly vocal left-wing forces within the Democratic Party.

“I think that a lot of Democrats may not like Netanyahu’s policies, because there’s an association with the Republican Party. But I don’t think that’s something I worry about too much. Because I think that people like me, and others who are around, are committed to the relationship, and I think the relationship is strong and will endure.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 24, 2011, prior to addressing a joint meeting of Congress. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Engel, who has represented various New York districts in the House since 1989, dismissed polls showing Republicans being more supportive of Israel than Democrats as “paradoxical,” as most American Jews traditionally vote for Democratic candidates. “If we take a look at Jews in American: 80 percent are Democrats. If you take a look at Jews in Congress: we have some 32 Jewish Democrats — I may be off by one or two — and two Jewish Republicans,” he said.

“There’s an alliance between our countries. There’s not an alliance between political leaders of the countries — that’s a bad thing for both countries to get into.”

Rep. Eliot Engel, left, with President Rivlin in Jerusalem, May 29, 2019 (Haim Zach/GPO

Engel, who is Jewish, indicated that he disagrees with the positions on the Middle East of controversial congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, but shrugged off questions about them by noting that Jews outnumber Muslims in Congress.

“There are three Muslims in the Democratic party elected to Congress. There are 28 or 32 Jews. You could always take the worst of statistic and kind of use that as the whole picture. But it’s not the whole picture,” he said.

“Some of us have educating to do, to some of our own people. There are some, I think mistakenly, who try to dab into Israeli politics, and I think they shouldn’t.”

Omar, a Somali-born first-time legislator from Minnesota, has been harshly criticized by politicians in the US and Israel for comments widely viewed as anti-Semitic.

Michigan representative Tlaib, like Omar a staunch critic of Israeli government policies, was criticized earlier this month for saying that she feels good about her Palestinian ancestors “trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post-the Holocaust.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar, Democrat-Minnesota, in the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 12, 2019. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The controversies surrounding these two congresswomen have some analysts worried about support for Israel becoming a partisan issue. But Engel, 72, said he sees no grounds for such concerns.

His commitment to Israel is not to any one prime minister, even though he maintained a good relationship with Netanyahu in his 30 years in Congress, he said. “My feeling of importance is the US-Israel relationship, is the right of Israel to have a Jewish state. You can take some of the more questionable things and throw your hand up and say, ‘Oh my God, the sky is falling.’ But I think Israel has a lot of potential.”

Because the people who are opposed to Israel have done a good job at demonizing some of the stuff. But there’s a story to tell, and no country is perfect

Former President Barack Obama — a Democrat — wasn’t very popular in Israel, but toward the end of his term pledged an “unprecedented” $38 billion in defense aid to Israel over a decade, Engel recalled.

“What I am saying is: where there’s a will, there’s a way. And there needs to be educating to do, I am not belittling that, either. Because the people who are opposed to Israel have done a good job at demonizing some of the stuff. But there’s a story to tell, and no country is perfect, and no country does everything right. That’s true of Israel and that’s true of the United States.”

Said Engel: “I always say that presidents come and go, prime ministers come and go, members of Knesset come and go, and members of Congress come and go. What we want to see is that the US-Israel relationship is strengthened, so it doesn’t really matter who’s there, because the relationship will be there. I doesn’t mean that we’ll necessarily agree on everything, but the relationship will be there. There’s no other country in this part of the world that has a democracy like Israel.”

Despite his very critical view of the current administration, including objections to Trump that go “beyond ideological and political differences,” as he was quoted in 2017, Engel said he took no offense to the Israeli prime minister aligning himself so closely to the president.

“There’s no doubt that Trump and Netanyahu like each other,” the soft-spoken congressman said. “They’ve worked together, and they see eye to eye on most of the issues. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel at the sidelines of a conference hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute in the capital’s Talbiye neighborhood, minutes before he visited President Reuven Rivlin in his nearby residence, Engel briefly discussed some regional issues.

For instance, he said he hoped that the next Democratic president would refrain from relocating the US Embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv.

“We need to accept it and move on, and need to fight other fights. I don’t think that’s a fight that needs to be fought. The capital of Israel is Jerusalem, always has been, always will be,” he said. “To me it didn’t make any sense not to have the embassy in Jerusalem. It was almost like questioning the legitimacy of the State of Israel.”

Vermont Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, last week indicated he would consider moving the embassy out of Jerusalem, if it served the cause of peace.

Presidential candidate and US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in Plains Twp., Pa. on, April 15, 2019. (Christopher Dolan/The Times-Tribune via AP)

Engel said he was a personal friend of Sanders’s but that he disagrees with his policies in this regard. “He’s way wrong on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis,” Engel said, recalling seeing the former congressman speak about the issue at a presidential debate in 2016. “He was very critical on Israel; he was off base, and not factual. I thought his facts were wrong.”

Engel himself is a life-long supporter of the two-state solution. “No matter how much I scratch my head and think of alternatives, I just can’t think of any,” he said earlier on Wednesday, during the IDI conference.

That’s also why he thought it was important to co-issue a statement last month warning the Israeli government against “taking unilateral steps to annex the West Bank.”

In the days leading up the April 9 Knesset election, Netanyahu had vowed to apply Israeli law unto all settlements in the West Bank.

On the question of Iran, Engel — one of the very few Democrats who publicly opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal championed by the Obama administration — did not offer a clear-cut strategy. While he voted against the deal, it may not have been a good idea to withdraw from it, he indicated, at the same time expressing unease about the idea a future Democratic president may rejoin the pact.

Illustrative: An unidentified International Atomic Energy Agency inspector cuts the connections between the twin cascades for 20 percent uranium enrichment at the Natanz facility, some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Monday, January 20, 2014. (AP/IRNA, Kazem Ghane)

“There are no easy answers,” he said. The regime in Tehran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world, “and I think that you don’t coddle a dangerous regime, because they would just get more dangerous,” he said.

Indeed, Engel largely agrees with Trump’s analysis of the Iran deal, as it failed to include a clause that would forever prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

On the other hand, he said it was “bad policy for our country” if any new president reversed the key decisions of his or her predecessor. America’s European allies warned that leaving the nuclear pact would only isolate the EU, not Iran, and “I became convinced, somewhat reluctantly, that that’s the case. And that’s why I said, there are other things we could have done against Iran, rather than go back and try to reverse what some people believe was working.”

“I am not sure it was working. I am not sure it wasn’t working,” he added. “A lot of people who are really up-to-date with really every nuance of this thing said that it was working reasonably well, so I am not sure [Trump’s decision to quit the deal] made sense.”

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