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U.S. pines for long-term Mideast peace pact. Step 1: Getting an ambassador to Israel

U.S. officials voiced their long-term objective for the Middle East: returning to peace talks aimed at Palestinian statehood after this war. But first, the country needs an ambassador to Israel. The post is vacant.

Amid backlog of diplomatic vacancies, U.S. Senate tries fast-tracking new Israel envoy

Man holds Israeli flag on second floor, above crowd of protesters on first floor of U.S. Capitol

Amid the mountain of problems in the Middle East, the U.S. is currently grappling with a more modest immediate challenge: it has no ambassador to Israel.

The key diplomatic post has been vacant for three months, with a career diplomat temporarily running the embassy since the last U.S. ambassador moved back home.

It's just one of dozens of ambassadorial vacancies in the U.S. amid Republican stall tactics.

Now the parties have agreed to rush the process to fill that one conspicuous gap as violence and geopolitical chaos ripple through the Middle East.

The U.S. Senate held a hearing Wednesday to consider the nomination of Jack Lew, with the majority Democrats pushing for a committee meeting next week to move the process to a final vote.

Democrats said the U.S. needs someone to fulfil several roles: leading embassy staff, supporting Israel in its response to murder, dealing with humanitarian crises and, in the longer term, to push for longer-term peace agreements.

"I cannot overstate the urgency to have a confirmed ambassador on the ground," said Ben Cardin, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, which is leading the process.

The hearing was interrupted several times by protesters accusing the U.S. of having a one-sided Middle East policy, indifferent to Palestinian civilian suffering.

Protester holds sign "Ceasefire Now" while standing behind man testifying in Congress

Pro-Palestinian protesters pressure Biden

The hecklers were forced out by security after shouting slogans like, "Our families are dying. We need a ceasefire now," and, "You're funding it.… Genocide in Gaza."

It was a taste of the growing pressure on the Biden administration from some progressives and Muslim-Americans. "As a Palestinian-American, and also as somebody of Muslim faith, I'm not gonna forget this," congresswoman Rashida Tlaib told a nearby protest.

This was on a day that the Israeli government announced it would allow food, water and medicine to enter Gaza from Egypt, amid pressure from U.S. President Joe Biden.

Woman speaks into microphone with tears in eyes

The prospective ambassador echoed a statement made by Biden during his trip to Israel: that after this war, Israelis and Palestinians can't revert to business as usual, and must seek a long-term peace.

Both mentioned Palestinian statehood.

At his hearing, Lew said he thought he was going to be working on peace initiatives, until the catastrophic events of recent days.

Biden, envoy, renew talk of Palestinian statehood

"I dearly pray we get back to that mission soon," said Lew, a former White House chief of staff and U.S. Treasury secretary.

"I have long believed that the path toward a long-term, stable Middle East, and a democratic and Jewish Israel, is a two-state solution. One has to deal with this issue if one is going to be on that path."

Biden with hand on chin, with Israeli and US flags behind him

He conceded that the time is clearly not ripe now, in the midst of war, with Israel torn apart by grief and fury elsewhere in the region.

But he added that some long-term issues must be dealt with after this immediate crisis recedes. In addition to a two-state solution, he mentioned recent efforts at normalizing Saudi-Israeli diplomatic ties.

One of the objectives of Hamas's attacks, he said, was to poison that project. In light of that, he said, the negotiating parties had a duty to remain undeterred.

"My view is: the way you prevent a terrorist organization from winning is you don't get terrorized," he said.

"You don't run away. You stick to what's in your national interest; and you work hard at it."

He began the hearing by referring to his own Jewish upbringing and the belief that Jewish people around the world can not feel safe without Israel.

He said he grew up viewing Harry Truman as a hero; he said the former president did not have to recognize Israel, which he did 11 minutes after its founding in 1948, against the advice of his national-security advisers.

WATCH | Biden discusses Palestinian aid deal:

Biden discusses deal to get aid through Rafah Crossing

10 hours ago

Duration 0:46

Featured VideoU.S. President Joe Biden told reporters on the way home from Israel that he spoke to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who agreed to do the necessary repairs to the Rafah border crossing with the aim of getting a first tranche of aid into Gaza on Friday.

Talk of a peace deal is depressingly hypothetical right now, says an analyst of the region.

"At this point? Beyond remote, I'm afraid," said Michael Lynk of Western University in London, Ont., a former United Nations rapporteur for human rights in Palestinian territories.

Part of the problem, he said, is the U.S. has paid lip service to Palestinian statehood but expended no political energy on it for years.

A UN stabilization mission?

That includes Biden. Lynk said the president talks about a two-state solution but without conviction. Lynk lamented that the last significant Israeli-Palestinian peace talks occurred almost a decade ago under then-secretary of state John Kerry.

The likeliest first step, Lynk said, would be a UN security presence in Palestinian territories as happened in Kosovo, the Balkans and East Timor.

This would, he said, buy time for new Palestinian leadership to emerge and for international pressure to build on Israel to negotiate.

As evidence of how far apart the sides are right now, he pointed to the logjam over simpler issues in the Saudi-Israeli normalization talks.

Saudis reportedly wanted the largest piece of the West Bank, Area C, currently administered by Israel and dotted with settlements, transferred to Palestinian control.

There's no Israeli appetite for that, Lynk said – let alone for meeting Palestinian demands like a contiguous state based on pre-1967 borders; an end to settlements; and control of East Jerusalem.

"This is anathema to the present Israeli cabinet and the present Israeli government," he said

Lew's confirmation to the role is likely; it could happen with Democratic votes alone, as his party holds a majority in the Senate.

Republicans, however, have expressed skepticism about his nomination.

Several accused Lew of misleading this same committee in 2015 when he insisted Iran would not access U.S. funds under terms of a now-moribund nuclear deal.

Profile pic of man

His department did, in fact, try and fail to help Iran convert funds in an Omani bank, through New York, into $5.7 billion US.

"We need [the position] filled," said the top Republican on the committee, its former chair James Risch.

"The problem I have is it needs to be filled with the right person. I have some issues in that regard."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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