GOP senators express concerns on Mideast peace

They endorse Israeli leader's security fears

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JERUSALEM -- Leading Republican senators said Friday that they share Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reservations about terms for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement proposed by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Mr. Netanyahu "has serious, serious concerns about the plan as it has been presented to him," particularly about Israel's future security and the viability of a future independent Palestinian state, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said following meetings with Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials.

Mr. McCain and fellow Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said they share the general alarm about Israel's security should the country withdraw from the West Bank. Without providing details of the largely secret proposals, Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham suggested that they and other strong supporters of Israel in Congress will greet Mr. Kerry's program skeptically.

"We feel very strongly that the peace process is very important sooner or later, and we support the legitimate peace process," Mr. McCain said. But he expressed concern about whether some aspects of the agreement are "truly enforceable and viable options" that would not put Israel in jeopardy.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham met Friday with Mr. Kerry in Jerusalem as Mr. Kerry works to win Israeli and Palestinian backing for a rough outline of a peace deal. Mr. Kerry met with Mr. Netanyahu for the second time in two days Friday and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the evening.

As Mr. Kerry made his rounds, Israeli security forces announced the arrest of four operatives and 10 accomplices belonging to an alleged terrorist cell based in Bethlehem. The Israelis said the suspects had confessed during interrogations to responsibility for a Dec. 22 remote-controlled bombing on an Israeli bus in a Tel Aviv suburb.

The bus bombing and subsequent arrests highlight a less obvious but potentially significant challenge for Mr. Kerry, separate from winning agreement from Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas. Other players who are not at the negotiating table but want to influence the outcome of talks, including Iranian-backed and other terrorist cells in Gaza and the West Bank, oppose any peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and are prepared to wage a campaign of terror to stop it.

Details of what Mr. Kerry calls a framework agreement would be worked out ideally before an unofficial deadline he set for a deal by the end of April. Mr. Kerry's focus on securing an interim agreement, however, is widely seen in Israel and among Palestinians as a sign that talks could extend past then.

Mr. McCain, speaking for the Republican group, said the secretary's energetic push for a peace deal is welcome, and he was careful not to criticize Mr. Kerry or give any point-by-point evaluation of his efforts. The three senators' trip to Afghanistan and the Middle East was scheduled before Mr. Kerry announced his latest Jerusalem-West Bank shuttle diplomacy visit.

But Mr. McCain said the Obama administration is simultaneously and shamefully allowing Syria to collapse and potentially endangering Israel through generous terms for nuclear rapprochement with Iran.

Mr. Graham added that despite detailed security proposals for the West Bank developed by a special U.S. envoy, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, senior Israelis remain unconvinced. "Here's the one thing that I think dominates the thinking in Israel: that once you withdraw, then the ability to go back is almost impossible," Mr. Graham said. "Look at Gaza. What's the chance of going back into Gaza militarily?"

Israel can defend itself against rocket attacks from that formerly Israeli-occupied territory, but withdrawal meant giving up the "ability to chart your own destiny," Mr. Graham said. "I really do believe that the idea of withdrawing has to be considered in light of Gaza."

Israeli air force planes on Friday fired missiles into the Gaza Strip in a response to rocket fire into Israel from there, the first such exchange of 2014. Last year was one of the quietest in a decade of confrontations between Israel and the coastal enclave, from which Israel unilaterally withdrew in 2005. Gaza is governed by the militant Islamic group Hamas, which has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Israel military spokesmen said their war planes targeted "a terror infrastructure site" and three concealed rocket launchers in Gaza. Reporters in Gaza said the Israeli missiles landed in agricultural fields. No injuries were reported.

In the bus bombing last month, a passenger saw a suspicious bag left behind, and when he opened it, saw wires. He alerted the driver, who ordered everyone off the bus. The bomb exploded several minutes later. The Israel Defense Forces said the device had been prepared by Shadi and Hamdi Ta'amri, brothers who have been previously arrested for alleged connections to the group known as the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine.

Israeli authorities said the bomb -- made of improvised explosive material and packed with nails and screws -- was hidden in a bag and given to Sami Harimi, also arrested, who sneaked into Israel from the occupied West Bank through a breach in the separation barrier.

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