Eliot Engel on foreign policy

Congressman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) has served as the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs since 2013, when he replaced his colleague from Southern California, Howard Berman.
June 17, 2015

Congressman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) has served as the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs since 2013, when he replaced his colleague from Southern California, Howard Berman. These days, Engel is busy dealing with issues ranging from Israel’s new governing coalition to ongoing negotiations with Iran to the fight against ISIS. The representative from the Bronx and Westchester County sat down with the Journal to discuss these issues and more during a recent visit to Los Angeles. The following is an edited transcript. 

JEWISH JOURNAL: Do you think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments before the Israeli election in March — briefly disavowing his support for a two-state solution — undermine the new government’s stance on peace? 

ELIOT ENGEL: I have said many times that I don’t really care that much whether the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel get along personally. I like to work to make sure that the U.S.-Israel relationship is strengthened to withstand all kinds of pulls and tugs through the years. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu was in an election campaign, and there are lots of things that are said in elections — in the United States, in Israel and in other democracies in the world. Prime Minister Netanyahu was overwhelmingly returned to office, and that needs to be respected.  

JJ: A few prominent ministers in the new government — including Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked — don’t support a two-state solution, and support prioritizing the Jewish nature of Israel over the democratic principles of the state. Do you think the U.S.’ relationship with Israel changes when democracy and peace are less clearly priorities of the governing coalition?

EE: No, and I don’t think it should deteriorate. I think that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and we have to respect the results of that democracy. I know Naftali Bennett personally; he is a friend of mine. I don’t agree with some of his positions, and I’ve told him that. But he does have a following in Israel, and I think that those people who voted for him need to be respected. I think we can cajole them behind the scenes, and we can push them in the direction that we think makes sense behind the scenes. But ultimately, they’re the ones that live in the bad neighborhood; the Middle East is a bad neighborhood. 

JJ: Netanyahu has indicated that he wants U.S. defense aid to Israel to increase from about $3 billion annually to $3.5 billion to $4 billion annually. Do you support that increase? 

EE: Yes, I do. I think the United States has the unique ability to provide whatever country we choose with weapons, both defensive and offensive. The Qualitative Military Edge (QME) that we in the United States guarantee Israel to have and to keep in the Middle East has been a cornerstone of our Middle East policy and obviously of Israel’s policy, so I want to see that enhanced. 

JJ: Given that ISIS was formed, in part, out of violence in the Middle East, do you think that further military action is a solution?

EE: I think that the ISIS problem is a very serious and complicated problem. I think ISIS has to be defeated militarily. I don’t think it is going to come easy. I think it is going to take many years. 

JJ: Should we be providing weapons to the Kurdistan Regional Government?

EE: Yes, we should. 

JJ: And expand our own military operations? 

EE: Yes, but we have to be careful, because I don’t think that any of us want to get sucked into another ground war in that region of the world. But there are other ways we can do it. We have the bombing campaign; we have the Kurds. 

JJ: You strongly supported congressional oversight of any deal with Iran, and you co-authored a letter to President Barack Obama with Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) stating as much. For you to support a final agreement, what would the relationship need to be between a loosening of American and international sanctions and a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program?

EE: I would need to see international inspectors able to freely go wherever they want in Iran, including on military bases, without having to ask and wait permission each and every time. I also think that the removal of sanctions has to not happen immediately up front when an agreement is signed, but that sanctions should move as Iran complies with whatever is agreed, step by step. 

The first problem that I had with the negotiations is that when we first sat down with Iran, we didn’t say to them, “While we are negotiating, you stop spinning centrifuges.” I was told that Iran wouldn’t agree to it. Well, if Iran wouldn’t agree to it way back when, what does that show you about Iran’s intentions? 

The other area in which I think we missed the boat is that we are not talking about anything else. So Iran continues to fund Hezbollah. Iran has been supporting Hamas. Iran is making mischief in Yemen. Iran is jailing American journalists. Iran has Americans in prison. Iran is playing footsy with Russia about missiles. …

It’s not perfect, but on the other side, you’ve got to look at whatever agreement comes out and compare to what the alternative is. If the agreement isn’t great but the alternative is worse, then you have to see in your own mind to decide what to do. And what comes after if there is no agreement is a military strike. We are faced here with many poor choices. 

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