After trip, Kaine optimistic about Middle East’s future

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), left, stands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. photo by Haim Zach / GPO
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), left, stands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo by Haim Zach / GPO

After spending six days in the Middle East and Europe as a member of a  congressional delegation trip, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he believes that Israel’s emerging cooperation with some of its neighbors is cause for optimism and that he still believes his vote for the Iran nuclear weapons deal was right.

Kaine spoke with officials in Israel, Palestinian areas of the West Bank, Turkey and Austria during the trip that ended Jan. 9. He also spoke with nongovernmental organizations while traveling with seven other senators, all Democrats who backed the Iran deal.

In an interview last week with Washington Jewish Week— days before final implementation of the Iran deal, including the lifting of sanctions by the United States and other world powers and a release of Americans held in Iran  — Kaine said that in previous trips to Israel, he often came away frustrated with the prospect of Israelis and their Arab neighbors living in peace.

“When you talk with senior leadership, you tend to hear the same thing over and over again. There is kind of a staleness to the conversation frankly,” he said. Often, one side just wants to blame the other, Kaine noted.

During his trip, he was encouraged to realize that “some countries really view Israel as a partner,” he said. “There is growing cooperation between Israel and many Arab nations in the region, the Gulf state- nations,” specifically Saudi Arabia, as well as Jordan and Egypt.

Many of the Arab leaders he spoke with pointed to Iran as a real threat to them, not Israel, he said.
Should a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians be reached — and Kaine doesn’t see that happening in the near future — he believes Arab countries will support it “and even put resources into security.”

The senator, who has been in office since January 2009, said he “came away very energized” from meetings with four NGO officials who worked in Jerusalem and three in Ramallah.

They spoke of a “real commitment” to work for peace,” he said. “They all made me believe there is energy and passion among the young generation.”

Kaine also was impressed with the delegation’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In previous visits, Netanyahu waited for someone to bring up the peace process, but this time, “he asked us questions. He wanted to hear from us,” Kaine said.

Netanyahu “is a key partner” and the United States must get along with him, Kaine said. He said that his refusal to attend Netanyahu’s speech before Congress last March was a rebuttal to Congress and not the Israeli leader.

During the trip, the delegation also spoke with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano and Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun.

Referring to the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, Kaine, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, said, “I still think it was definitely the right thing to do” and that it has already helped. “They gave up 98 percent of their stockpile.” When the enriched uranium was shipped out, “that was a very good day” for both America and Israel.

“We are going to continue to have challenges with Iran” for years to come, he said. However, “it is going to be an Iran that is not on the threshold” of possessing nuclear weapons.

Kaine said the United States and the IAEA must be vigilant to ensure continued Iranian compliance with the deal, which limits how the country can process and use fissile material.

Enforcing the agreement “is going to be the work of decades,” he said, adding that he believed the IAEA is up to the task. It “has very high credibility. … They were accurate” in 2003 when concluding that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction.

During the trip, efforts to combat the so-called Islamic State and the ongoing civil war in Syria were also discussed.

Kaine previously has called for a no-fly zone over northern Syria, and he said he still feels strongly that “Congress should just get off the couch and weigh in” by debating and passing an authorization on the use of military force requested by the White House.

Said Kaine, “Congress is trying to hide under their desks, even those who talk the toughest.”

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