Sen. Tom Harkin, in S.F., blasts Bush inertia on Mideast

The Bush administration's lack of involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came under fire from Sen. Tom Harkin, in town on Monday.

"It's left a real vacuum," the Democrat from Iowa said in an interview. "It's not engaged. There are no high-level diplomats in the region."

With Congress now in summer recess, the senator was in San Francisco for meetings on Monday, and attended a luncheon at Stars with an ad hoc group of about 20 Jewish pro-Israel activists. Organized by Sam Lauter of San Francisco, Russ Holdstein of Kentfield and Deb Bloomberg of Alamo, the luncheon was "to say thank you for all your support," Lauter said.

Harkin, who has been considered a strong ally of Israel for as long as he's been in office — 10 years as a congressman and then 15 as a senator — said the mood in Washington among his colleagues was one of both frustration and fear.

Frustration that the cease-fire never took hold, and fear that Israel and the Palestinian Authority are on the verge of an all-out war.

"Everyone is hoping for a breakthrough that will stop the cycle of violence," he said.

Saying it was time for both sides to stop blaming the other, Harkin added, "At some point you have to say, 'What's passed is past; we have to forget about it, stop the violence and start anew. We can't go over that ground again.' That's the only way to get out of this."

Harkin, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, was proud of his efforts in getting the House to overwhelmingly approve a bill that included $15.2 billion in foreign aid. The Senate will vote on the measure in September.

For Israel, the bill includes $2.04 billion for military aid and $720 million for economic needs.

The military aid is up from $1.98 billion last year, and the economic aid is down from $840 million last year, "because of the agreement between the U.S. and Israel to start decreasing it," said Harkin.

He was responsible for securing $60 million of the economic aid for resettling refugees, and $10 million for a cooperative research program that Harkin saw when he visited. Some funds were allotted for the "Seeds of Peace" camp in Maine, which brings together children from countries at war around the world. Traditionally, children from Israel and the Palestinian territories have come together at the camp. This summer, however, there is no official Palestinian delegation.

As for the Palestinians, the bill allots $75 million to the Palestinian Authority, the same figure as last year, although there are some amendments to "make it contingent on how they're implementing the Oslo accords."

Reacting to an article he had read in Monday's Washington Post that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had called for third-party monitors in the Middle East, Harkin said he was unsure about the idea.

"There's a high level of distrust by the Israeli government to the U.N.," he said. "It hasn't been particularly supportive of Israel."

Harkin said he believed that momentum was growing for a U.N. presence in the Mideast, as European countries don't believe the United States could be an honest broker in the conflict. "I don't know whether the Bush administration would try to stop that," he said.

Harkin emphasized that the most important thing was for both parties to stop demonizing and blaming the other. Both the Israelis and Palestinians "need to stop it now and begin to negotiate in good faith."

Lauter said that in his remarks to local Jewish activists, Harkin sounded a some-what hopeful note.

"He is still hopeful that things can move forward, " said Lauter, "except he didn't sound particularly optimistic."