Israel trip gives Tauscher closer look at peace efforts

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Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher describes Israel as moving ahead in the peace process on 2-1/2 tracks.

The Palestinians and Syria represent two of the tracks. But Lebanon is relegated to half-track status because it's little more than a puppet of Syria.

The Democrat from Tassajara Valley, near Danville, was in Israel from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1 with a congressional delegation.

In addition to touring Israel and Gaza, the legislators met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak a week before the Sept. 4 signing of the Sharm el-Sheik agreement, a follow-up to last fall's Wye accords.

"I was very impressed by Prime Minister Barak and his laser-like vision…of what needs to be done," Tauscher said during a phone interview last week from Washington, D.C.

"He understands the strategic issues involved in this deal and what it means for the Jewish people and the state of Israel to have to negotiate with both the Palestinian chairman and [Syrian President Hafez] Assad."

Personally, Tauscher found Arafat forthcoming, adding that he, too, seemed determined to reach a peace agreement, despite death threats from Palestinian militants. She added that he spoke eloquently about the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and its impact on him.

"We were very encouraging [to Arafat] that he not squander this opportunity" to reach a peace agreement," she said.

Tauscher's trip — her first to the Mideast — was sponsored by the American Israel Education Fund, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"A first-hand perspective is very powerful and gives not only credibility but strategic advantages when you understand the geography, topography and history. Many constituents in my district wanted me to go," said Tauscher, whose district spans Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

When Tauscher was in Israel, the main peace-related issues were focused on Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. The Sept. 4 agreement, signed shortly after Tauscher left the Mideast, settled some of those issues. Israel released 200 prisoners on Thursday of last week and is scheduled to release another 150 by Oct. 8.

Tauscher will soon be dealing directly with U.S. involvement in the peace talks. The House will vote next month whether to appropriate $1.6 billion to the Israelis for security and Palestinians for economic development. In light of the latest Israeli-Palestinian agreement, Tauscher predicts the funds will be approved.

On a related topic, Tauscher said she believes the death of Jordan's King Hussein earlier this year will not alter the relationship between Israel and Jordan.

"King Abdullah has moved very forcefully to assert himself as the caretaker of the peace that his father was bold enough to strike with Israel," she said. "He has thrown out right-wing organizations that have threatened that."

As Israel reaches peace agreements with other countries, the chances of achieving peace with Syria and Lebanon improve, Tauscher said.

"I think Assad understands what it will mean for his people to be left behind," she said. "It's in his economic interest [to be at peace with Israel]. Syria cannot afford to be left out of this. The best opportunity for Syria is for the entire region to be at peace and for Israel to emerge as an economic power."

In addition, she said that as Israel's military and economic power increases, neighboring countries at peace with the Jewish state will benefit from a spill-over effect.

"Israel is the regional power [and can] move other countries out of Third World status," Tauscher said. Although the compromises necessary to reach a peace agreement "may be a reluctant decision on some people's part, it is generally accepted that it's what will move people from the 18th to 21st century."