WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine was slated to leave Friday night on a nearly weeklong trip to the Middle East for “on the ground” lessons about the faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations as well as the regional implications of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
King will travel to the region with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and they plan to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and other top Israeli executive and legislative officials. They also plan to travel to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and local business leaders.
King and Kaine are freshman senators who sit on committees that deal regularly with military and foreign affairs matters. The trip is considered an official visit by members of a congressional delegation and is paid for by the federal government.
“It really springs from my committee assignments on the Senate Intelligence and the Armed Services committees, which have sort of thrown me in the middle of the Iranian situation and its implications on the Israeli peace process,” King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said in an interview before departing for the Middle East.
“I always learn more from being on the ground in these places,” King said. “It’s an opportunity to learn about the region and the issues over there.”
There is no shortage of issues for the two senators to discuss.
Tensions are high between the U.S. and Israel in large part because of the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iranian leaders over that country’s nuclear weapons program. Although still key strategic and political allies of the U.S., Israeli leaders and Netanyahu, in particular, have been sharply critical of the terms of a temporary deal negotiated by Iran, the U.S. and several other nations.
That deal is aimed at halting Iran’s development of nuclear weapons for at least six months while negotiators work on a longer-term agreement likely to ease the crippling economic sanctions on Iran. But critics in Israel as well as in the U.S. – ever skeptical of Iranian leaders – have lambasted the deal as being too weak to slow Iranian progress toward becoming a nuclear-armed state.
Those longer-term negotiations among Iran, the U.S. and five other nations will resume next week. Netanyahu has said Iran and the on-again, off-again peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine will be the major topics of conversation with President Obama when he visits Washington next month, Reuters reported.
This is King’s second congressional trip abroad. In July, he traveled to Turkey and Jordan with the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., to discuss the civil war in Syria and its impact on the region.
King described that trip as “tremendously important” as he and other members of Congress weighed whether to support an authorization-of-force resolution against Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons. Congress eventually backed down after Syrian President Bashar Assad agreed to dismantle his chemical weapons stockpile.
King and Levin have also been outspoken opponents of a push among some in Congress to impose additional sanctions on Iran despite the ongoing negotiations.
“Instead of slowing Iran’s nuclear program, such legislation could actually accelerate its quest for atomic weapons, leaving a stark choice: Either accept the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, or use military force to stop it,” the pair wrote in an op-ed column published last month in The New York Times.
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