CHICAGO: American foreign policy has a “blind spot” when it comes to getting accurate information on challenges facing Israelis and Palestinians or achieving peace, Illinois Congressman Sean Casten (D-6th) told Arab News Wednesday.
Elected in 2018 after defeating conservative Peter Roskam, Casten said he saw how the “status quo” provokes extremists on both sides, Hamas and Israeli settlers, during two visits to Israel and later the West Bank.
Casten said he supports a two-state solution but believes it will be difficult to achieve under current circumstances. He stressed that he supports Israel’s right to security in the face of threats from Hamas, as well as the rights of Palestinian civilians, citing the experiences he saw Palestinian farmers face from armed settlers while in Bethlehem last February.
“We had gone in the last time I was there, which was last February. We had gone in and met with several Palestinians. They (Israeli settlers) have got a farm up on the hill above their farm, and it is essentially an outpost with armed settlers who are regularly coming down and shooting their (Palestinian) livestock,” Casten recalled from the trip.
“And we’re sitting there saying we are members of Congress. Why don’t we just walk up? And they were saying no, no… ‘You are going to get shot if you do that, do not walk up there,’ which is weird because normally as a member of Congress, we can go anywhere. We then come back, and we met with Tom Knives, the US ambassador to Israel, who is a lovely guy, and we start telling him about this and it was clear he was not aware of those realities on the ground because as the ambassador to Israel, he cannot travel into that region except in a supervised fashion. And so, we need to have information. We have this blind spot in US foreign policy right now.”
Casten said the situation he saw there reinforced his belief that re-opening the US Consulate in Jerusalem for Palestinian affairs, which is one of the goals of President Joseph Biden, is essential.
“We have Palestinian communities who need representation. They don’t have an embassy anymore. Should we push to create that embassy? That seems like a good thing Congress should do. We’re not taking sides. We are just saying we need to make sure that people [are safe]. We talked to a guy who runs the Hope Flowers School that teaches non-violence in Bethlehem. He doesn’t have anyone to reach out to right now. So, we raise that issue and then we hear, well, ‘Be careful pushing that because as you have seen the Knesset is very divided right now and if you push too hard that might create the rise, the return of the Israeli political right,’” Casten said.
“I am completely in [support] of that (opening the US Consulate). But the challenge is how do we do that in a way that is responsive to the circumstances on the ground there?”
Casten complained that the US understanding of the Israeli-Palestine conflict is dominated by activists on both sides in the US and that a greater effort needs to be made to hear the views of everyone involved to better understand the reality. He said that the US must “understand how it affects the politics on the ground there” in order to address those challenges.
Appearing on “The Ray Hanania Show,” broadcast on the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News, Casten said his experiences showed how one cannot only listen to activists who advocate for their causes but must also hear from others to better understand the hurdles that prevent peace.
“There is so much pressure in our US system to be responsive to US citizens who are advocates for the region. And I think it is so dangerous to only listen to those groups if you haven’t spoken to groups on the ground…I have met with everyone from Prime Minister (Mohammed) Shtayyeh to (President) Mahmoud Abbas to (Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu and (Alternate Prime Minister) Yair Lapid this last time,” Casten said.
“Everybody will tell Americans who are there that the system is very brittle. If you push us too hard, you will see the rise of the right on the Israeli [side], if you push us too hard you will see the rise of Hamas on the Palestinian side. And there is this tremendous pressure that says, ‘Please don’t violate the status quo.’ And yet we all know that the status quo is untenable. I think the surest way to compromise the security of everyone in the region is to continue the status quo where you have a group of people with no property rights and increasingly little hope.”
Casten observed how the recent signing of peace accords between Israel and other Arab states has changed the dynamics of what many Israelis believe is the path to peace.
“The feeling on the ground in Israel, I think there used to be a sense in Israel that there is no path to regional peace without a resolution to the Palestinian issue,” Casten said.
“And with the passage of the Abraham Accords, with the increasing concerns of a nuclear Iran, the feeling I get on the street when I talk to Israelis over there is that they have almost inverted that until we have regional peace, we don’t need to worry about the Palestinian issue. I don’t know how to solve that. I feel better about our opportunity to solve that when we have more centrist moderate governments. Of course, the Israeli government has been very brittle now for four or five years.”
Casten said he supports the two-state solution but is unsure how it can be achieved in today’s political dynamics.
“I absolutely support it, and I wish I could tell you that I saw a path to getting it done. I don’t know how you have a democratic Jewish Israel that doesn’t have two states with coherent borders,” Casten said.
“I will also share with you, I have yet to meet an Israeli leader who is committed to the idea that they don’t have complete control of security, which is one and one-half states. And I have yet to meet a leader in the Palestinian authority who doesn’t have a business card that doesn’t have a map that runs from the Jordan to the sea.”
Casten also said he was optimistic in cases like the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh that one could criticize Israel without being anti-Israeli. Palestinian witnesses have said they believed the Palestinian-American citizen was killed on May 11 by an Israeli sniper’s bullet, but the Israelis have resisted that conclusion.
“There are a lot of pressures in our domestic politics. But I think we should be able to manage,” Casten said when asked if responsibility for Abu Akleh’s killing will be resolved.
“I have always been partial to that beautiful line of Frederick Douglass when he said that the best friend of the nation is who acknowledges her faults rather than cloak himself in the specious garb of patriotism. He was, of course, talking about America. But I think in the same way, for the United States to be a good friend of Israel, as we are, we also have to be willing to say as your friend, you are not perfect.”
Casten is a scientist, clean energy entrepreneur and CEO who has dedicated his life to fighting climate change. He serves on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and is vice chair of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Investor Protection, Entrepreneurship, and Capital Markets.
Casten faces fellow Democrat Congresswoman Marie Newman in the June 28 election primary. Newman did not respond to several requests to appear on the radio show.
The Ray Hanania Show is broadcast live every Wednesday at 5 p.m. Eastern EST on WNZK AM 690 radio in Greater Detroit, including parts of Ohio, and WDMV AM 700 radio in Washington D.C., including parts of Virginia and Maryland. The show is rebroadcast on Thursdays at 7 a.m. in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 and in Chicago at 12 p.m. on WNWI AM 1080.