Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), a liberal congressman, has been a staunch defender of Israel and advocate for a robust U.S.-Israel relationship. In a candid interview he shared his thoughts on J Street, the chance for a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and the ongoing menace of a nuclear-armed Iran.
He recently circulated a letter along with Rep. Steve Austria (R-Ohio) condemning Palestinian incitement of violence. The letter was certainly in keeping with the views of the U.S. government and of administrations of both parties as well as the terms of international agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority. However, the left-wing J Street mounted a campaign against the letter.
Was Rothman surprised? “I’ve been around long enough,” he answered, “to know when people have an agenda they will ignore the plain facts in front of their faces to accomplish their mission.” He added, “No sensible person would have an objection to a letter condemning incitement to hatred and violence and calling for the parties to settle their differences at the bargaining table.”
I asked him about the growing pressure from the Quartet, the United Nations and others for a unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. Rothman dismissed the notion that the United States and others would sign off on a scheme that violated U.S. policy and a host of international agreements. He explained, “While I understand there is a serious effort to avoid coming to the peace talks with Israel to resolve all issues, at the end of the day the world will not accept a Palestinian state that is not the result of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.” He is confident that “ultimately” the Palestinians “will agree to come to the bargaining table, hopefully sooner rather than later.”
Given that the Quartet, which has been raising the potential for a unilateral declaration, includes the United States, is he concerned that the administration isn’t being active enough in heading off such a move? Rothman, unlike many on the right, says he is very comfortable that the Obama administration would block such a move. He told me, “Very recent statements by the secretary of state, special envoy Dennis Ross and even in yesterday’s statement by the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, are very clear in their rejection of the notion that the U.S. would participate in or would allow this to occur or would avoid having outstanding issues be resolved other than at the peace table.”
I also asked him about the recantation by Richard Goldstone and the refusal of some, including the U.N. Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch, J Street and other non-governmental organizations, to recognize that his report is now fully discredited. He responded, “While it was clear to a number of us both in Israel and in the U.S., the administration, the Congress and others when the report was first issued that the Goldstone report was completely erroneous and not worth the paper it was written on, after the recantation, it is clear to every rational being that the Goldstone report is not worthy of any consideration.” Deeming the report “a totally flawed and fraudulent document,” he said, “We do not need to spend any more time dwelling on it. It now properly resides in the dust bin of history with other completely discredited political screeds.”
I also asked him about the U.S. participation in the UNHRC. Hasn’t the administration demonstrated that the entity can’t be reformed? Rothman here parts company with conservatives on getting out of the UNHRC. He told me, “There are good arguments on both sides of the question.” But he comes down on the side of remaining. He explained, “I am still of the mind that it is important for the U.S. to be present and to speak truth in the face of lies and demonstrate that the good people of this planet are alive and are ready to night any effort to unjustly demonize and destroy the Jewish state and other groups.” Unfortunately, from conservatives’ perspective, Susan Rice is no Steve Rothman.
At the end of our conversation we turned to Iran and its ambitions to become a nuclear power. “It would be nice,” he said, “if there was one figurative silver bullet to end the mullahs’ insane quest of a nuclear weapons capability. But I don’t think that is possible or necessary.” Instead, he favors the full range of covert and overt efforts to thwart the program. Shouldn’t that include a credible threat of military action if other means fail? Rothman said that he has always said publicly that “the military option to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability should always be on the table.” In questioning the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs, Rothman said, “They have testified that they are completely and absolutely ready if given the order [to use military force].” And he added, “I certainly know the Israeli military is ready, should it be given that order from its government.” Nevertheless, he still believes an “out-and-out conflict” can be avoided by using diplomatic, covert and overt means. He concluded, “It is in Israel and America’s interests to continue down that path.”
Friends of Israel on the right often imagine (it’s easy to do) that the Democratic position on Israel is reflected by Obama or by extreme groups such as J Street, who seem to fancy bashing and strong-arming Israel. And certainly, recent polling confirms that support for Israel among Democrats is on the decline. Rothman, however, should remind pro-Israel conservatives that there are staunch and effective allies on the Democratic side of the aisle who are key to maintaining a close U.S.-Israel relationship. If only this White House were as clear-eyed and articulate as Rothman, Israel and its friends could rest easier.