Israel’s ‘endgame’ on Iran, meetings with Palestinian leaders top agenda for Sen. King’s Middle East trip
AUGUSTA, Maine — Sen. Angus King embarked on a trip Friday to the Middle East, where he’ll meet with top Israeli and Palestinian officials to discuss peace talks between the two states, as well as an interim deal to reverse Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
King, a member of the U.S. Senate committees on armed services and intelligence, will join Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who leads a subcommittee on foreign policy in the Middle East and Asia, for the weeklong trip. They’ll meet with top officials in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
An interim deal struck recently between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, lifted the decades-old trade sanctions on the Islamic republic in exchange for a short-term freeze on portions of that nation’s nuclear program. The deal is meant to be a stopgap while a more long-term agreement is negotiated.
Talks are ongoing, and President Barack Obama is hopeful that a solution can be found to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions for good.
Israel, however, has opposed the deal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the deal a “ historic mistake,” according to the Washington Post, and argued it did not do enough to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Iran does not recognize Israel’s statehood and has adopted a bombastic, antagonistic stance toward the Jewish state.
In Jerusalem, King and Kaine will meet with Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials.
“It’s important to know what they believe is the endgame, what they see as an appropriate solution,” King said in an interview Friday. “They’ve been quite critical of these negotiations that have been going on, and on the interim agreement. My position has been to give it a chance, to see if it works, but I want to hear their side of it.”
King continued: “If we can negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, that’s a huge deal. If we can’t, the danger is Iran goes nuclear, and suddenly Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf states all want to do the same, and you’ve got a proliferation nightmare.”
The senators will also visit one of the locations of Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system, designed to intercept rockets and artillery launched over the border of the Palestinian territories.
King praised a “superhuman effort” by Secretary of State John Kerry in kickstarting a new round of peace talks between Israel and Palestine. King remained neutral on one of the most contentious sticking points in the negotiations, Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, saying he hoped to learn more from both sides during his trip.
In the West Bank, King and Kaine will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and the PA’s chief peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat. They’ll also meet with several Palestinian businessmen and entrepreneurs.
The Middle East trip is King’s second foreign voyage since taking office in January 2013. Last year, he joined Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., on a trip to Jordan and Turkey. He has been to Israel once before, on a business trip a half-decade ago.
The national spotlight has shone on King, who has appeared frequently on cable news networks and in the opinion pages of national newspapers, tackling issues such as the Iran talks, the unrest in Syria and security questions surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The independent senator from Maine said Friday that his increased profile on matters of foreign policy is a function of his committee assignments, noting he is one of only three lawmakers to serve on both the Armed Services and Intelligence committees.
“I suspect if I was on the Commerce Committee and Agriculture Committee, I wouldn’t be engaged in these issues,” he said. “My philosophy is, you do the best job you can and the job you’re assigned. These issues are important and complex, and I hope to be able to make a contribution.”
King said the biggest surprise since delving into the world of foreign policy is just how dire international relations are.
“The word I would use is ‘frightening,’” he said. “All the people who deal with these issues, the director of national intelligence, the chief of the joint chiefs, all say that the world today is the most complex and dangerous they can recall in the many-decades long careers.”
King is scheduled to return to the United States on Thursday. Kaine will continue on to Egypt after the trip to Israel and Palestine.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.