The future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank depends in part on arrangements Israel made with previous U.S. administrations, Sen. Arlen Specter said in Pittsburgh on Thursday, July 2.
Speaking to a standing room only crowd of nearly 150 people at the United Jewish Federation building in Oakland, Specter said he was “cautious” about advising Israel on policy matters, and said “I simply am not going to put any pressure on them.”
“I want to know what the facts are. I want to know what arrangements the Bush administration and the Clinton administration made on the settlements,” Specter said in response to a question. “I want to know where the geographical boundaries are: Are they building out? Are they building up? Are they taking more land? What’s going on?”
The Obama administration wants Israel to freeze the settlement construction in the West Bank. Israel has said it made arrangements with the Bush administration to accommodate limited expansion for existing families, also known as “natural growth.”
Specter added, “Israel’s policy on the settlements is directly related to security,” an assertion held by many who support settlements and rejected by many who oppose them.
Specter, in Pennsylvania for the Independence Day recess, related a story from earlier in his trip where a woman asked when he would stop “blindly” supporting Israel. He likened the question to the rhetorical trick: When are you going to stop beating your wife?
“I support Israel because we have a commonality of interests. It is not blind support,” Specter said.
Asked about the Spirit of Humanity, a relief ship bound for Gaza but intercepted and redirected by the Israeli Navy when it broke a blockade, Specter said he would look into the issue. “If a ship has been seized on the high seas, and there are humanitarian reasons to release it, I would have no hesitancy in speaking out on that,” he said.
But asked whether he thought President Obama’s policies in the Middle East would run counter to Israeli interests, Specter said, to applause, “I don’t think that President Obama will sacrifice Israel’s interests and I don’t think that Congress would permit him to.”
Audience members represented a broad range of viewpoints on Israel. Questions from both left-and right-wing perspectives yielded applause at various points in the evening.
The speech was Specter’s first appearance in Pittsburgh since he switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democratic. He spoke about the switch, as well as issues ranging from the Middle East, health care, the judiciary, energy policy and the economy.
Since being elected to the Senate in 1980, Specter has visited Israel more than 25 times, and made many trips to other countries in the region, including Syria, Egypt and Iraq. He said he believes in diplomacy and negotiation as strategies for dealing with foreign countries, saying, “Sometimes a dialogue doesn’t produce a whole lot, but it’s worth undertaking.”
He lamented the lack of diplomatic negotiations in the lead up to the current war in Iraq.
Concerning other regional disputes, Specter reiterated an assertion that the Golan Heights would probably be the cornerstone of any treaty between Israel and Syria, but said, “Israel has to decide if Israel wants to give up the Golan. Only Israel can decide that.”
In December 2008, Specter said 2009 “may be the right time to secure an Israeli-Syrian Peace Treaty if the new administration aggressively pursues that objective.”
Specter defended his decision to vote for the $787 billion stimulus plan in February, saying, “It seemed to me that we had a real risk of sliding into a 1929 Depression.”
Specter was one of only three Senate Republicans to vote for the plan. His support drew criticism from fellow Republicans, including the threat of censure, and ultimately prompted his decision to switch parties in advance of his upcoming re-election campaign.
He said Democrats had been courting him for years, but after his vote on the stimulus plan, “I found there were more Republicans urging me to become a Democrat than there were Democrats urging me to become a Democrat,” he said. “So I decided to do that.”
Speaking about the state of the Republican Party, Specter said, “the tent has collapsed,” referring to the inclusive “big tent” many believe Ronald Reagan brought to the party.
“It’s comfortable to be a Democrat. I don’t have to look over my shoulder,” Specter said.
In a question and answer session following the speech, several audience members asked Specter about the on-going public debate over reforming health care in America.
“The idea of a public option is okay,” Specter said, referring to Obama’s plan for a government sponsored health care program. But Specter said a public plan must remain competitive with private options and allow consumers to choose between the two.
Specter also noted that Congress still doesn’t have legislation before it to review.
“It’s really hard to make a judgment until we see it,” he said.
Specter also took questions about the judiciary.
After switching parties, Specter lost his seat as the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for confirming judicial appointments.
Specter said he would still have a voice in the upcoming hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Specter praised Sotomayor’s academic, professional and judicial career and said he thought the Supreme Court needed more female justices.
He said he planned to ask Sotomayor about executive power and about the Court’s decision to not hear a case that families of 9/11 victims brought against Saudi Arabia, among other topics.
Specter — who did not stand behind a lectern or use notes — spoke for 20 minutes and took questions for nearly an hour, then stayed on to speak with attendees one on one.
The UJF and the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee jointly hosted the event.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at email@example.com.)