JERUSALEM (JTA) — In the Middle East for the second time since becoming speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Nancy Pelosi brought a counterweight to President Bush's approach to the region, saying diplomacy and not just force is necessary to confront the troublemakers.
Pelosi held closed-door meetings with Israeli leaders Sunday, and planned to meet later in the week with leaders in the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria.
The decision to visit Damascus, made public on Friday, came under sharp criticism from the White House and underscored the difference between the Middle East peacemaking approaches by Pelosi and the Democrats and that of the Bush administration.
"We must counter the terrorists' vision of apocalypse and despair with our own pure path for hope and dignity," Pelosi said Sunday night at a state dinner thrown in her honor at Israel's Knesset. "And we must do this with strength, but also with wisdom."
She called on the United Nations to enforce the resolutions it passed last summer to disarm Hezbollah and said Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. But, Pelosi said, "the way to do it is through diplomacy — with stronger sanctions and smarter policy choices."
The White House condemned Pelosi's decision to visit Syria. "In our view, it is not the right time to have these sort of high-profile visitors to Syria," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters on Friday.
In contrast, Israel's acting president said she understood why the House speaker was going to Damascus.
"Your expected visit to Damascus naturally touches off political debate in your country and, of course, with us as well," Dalia Itzik, the Knesset speaker as well as acting president, said at the Knesset dinner.
"I believe in your worthy intentions," Itzik said. "Perhaps this step, seen as unpopular at this stage, which you plan to undertake when you leave our country will clarify to the Syrian people and the Syrian leadership they must abandon the axis of evil, that they must stop supporting terrorism and giving shelter to terrorist headquarters, that they must make a real strategic choice that will give hope to Syria's citizens and to the citizens of the entire region."
While Pelosi has been to this region before — she was here in January
on a trip that included Iraq and Afghanistan — this visit marked
It was Pelosi's first speech to a foreign legislature — she and Itzik are the first female speakers of their respective
legislatures. She was traveling with a bipartisan delegation of House colleagues, including Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), making this the first trip to Israel by America's first
Showcasing her pro-Israel credentials, Pelosi spoke of her family's longtstanding support for the Jewish state — Pelosi's father was a congressman from Maryland and mayor of Baltimore who was supportive of Israel — and told of how she keeps dog tags from Israel's MIAs in her congressional office.
Pelosi brought the dog tags with her to Jerusalem and brandished them for the crowd during her speech at the Knesset. Later, when the families of the missing soldiers were called upon to join her at the podium for a photo, the several hundred people in the room fell silent.
In an interview, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) told JTA that the delegation was visiting Damascus to confront President Bashar Assad directly on such issues as Syria's support for terrorists, Hezbollah and Iran, as well as to press for the release of Israel's missing soldiers in Lebanon.
"We met with the family members" of the missing soldiers, Waxman said. "We definitely will raise that with Bashar Assad and in Beirut. We want to impress upon him the U.S. commitment to a free and independent Lebanon."
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), said the model of the Cold War should serve as a salient reminder for the benefits of talk, rather than mere shunning, when it comes to rogue states.
"We talked to the Soviet Union for over half a century, and there's no doubt in my mind that the tremendous amount of interchange had something to do with the collapse of the system," Lantos told JTA.
He said his six visits to Libya helped bring Muammar Gadhafi back into the community of nations, and that he would like to visit Tehran in an effort to do the same. Tehran has not extended the congressman, a Holocaust survivor, any welcome.
"I believe in talking to people," Lantos said.
After arriving in Israel late Friday, the congressional delegation toured the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall and the Al-Aksa Mosque on Saturday and met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday. The group was scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later in the week before heading on to Beirut, Damascus and Riyadh.
For Ellison, the trip was a learning experience. "I can get behind a foreign policy based on diplomacy and negotiation," Ellison told JTA in an interview. "Nancy Pelosi is a bold, courageous, visionary leader."
Rebuffing expectations that his position as a Muslim legislator from Israel's strongest ally puts him in a unique position to build bridges between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, Ellison said, "I'm going to focus on learning as much as I can and on building contacts and on trying to spark some friendships. Anything more than that I'm grossly underqualified to do."
"In terms of whatever role I can play one day, today is not that day," he said.
Ellison said he was moved by his visit to the Al-Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount and by his meeting with the families of the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped last summer by Palestinians in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
"Meeting with the parents of the captive soldiers was heartrending," Ellison said.
The state dinner in Pelosi's honor was part pomp and circumstance, part celebratory. Israeli and American flags bedecked the Knesset's Chagall Hall, and Pelosi and Itzik were welcomed by a full-dress military ensemble.
But after their speeches, some wine and Cornish hen, Pelosi and Itzik returned to the stage to clap along to renditions of "Hallelujah" and "Hava Nagila," played by the Israel Defense Forces band. Then the pair worked the floor, meeting and greeting Knesset members, priests, rabbis and Jewish organizational representatives, and at least one U.S. congressman -- Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) -- and his family who had flown to Israel to celebrate Passover.
As the night wore on and dessert was served, Itzik explained why she might seem a bit antsy: It was the night before Passover, and she still had some cleaning to do.