Henry Hyde's plea

Robert Novak
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Posted: May 25, 2006 12:05 AM

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Henry Hyde, showing the courage that has typified a political career now in its final months, is pleading the case of endangered Palestinian Christians to President Bush. A faithful supporter of Israel over many years, Hyde said in a letter sent Friday to the White House: "I cannot be blind when Israeli actions seem to go beyond the realm of legitimate security concerns and have negative consequences on communities and lands under their occupation." He urged the president to take up this issue with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on his Washington visit this week.

Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, sent along with his letter a five-page, single-spaced report prepared by his staff based on visits to Israel and Palestine over the past two years. It contends "the Christian community is being crushed in the mill of the bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict." The Israeli security wall and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the report continues, "are irreversibly damaging the dwindling Christian community."

This issue was not on the agenda of the Bush-Olmert talks. There is no sign that Bush studied the House report or even that it made its way through an unsympathetic National Security Council staff into his hands. But Hyde's concern is shared by important members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the new papal nuncio in Washington, represented the Vatican in Jerusalem the past eight years and realizes the plight of the Christians there. So does Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retiring archbishop of Washington, D.C., who recently went to the Holy Land to experience conditions there firsthand.

Hyde has been trying to get the Bush administration's -- and the world's -- attention since 2004, when he wrote Secretary of State Colin Powell expressing concern about Israeli policy. In 2005, Hyde took up the issue personally with Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres. At age 82, in his 32nd and last year in Congress, he is making what may be his final effort to get the president interested in what happens to less than 2 percent of Israel's population.

Since his letter to Powell two years ago, Hyde wrote Bush last Friday, "the situation has significantly worsened." While backing Israel's "need to defend itself," he called it "important that United States support for Israel not be perceived as involving the affirmation of injustice."

Hyde's committee report employs stronger language than the congressman had used previously. It calls for insistence that Israel "honor its pledge to stop settlement expansion" and suggests the security barrier is "a pretext for annexing territory."

The report rejects the widespread impression that the Olmert regime really is abandoning the West Bank and disbanding the settlements.

The report says "the Bethlehem area is home to over 20 Israeli settlements and there are plans to build more. The settlements in the barrier completely encircle the Christian triangle of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour (Shepherds' Field)." While causing housing and land shortages, "this construction physically obstructs the Bethlehem community from its spiritual, cultural and economic lifeline in Jerusalem."

Furthermore, the report contends "fundamentalist" settlers in East Jerusalem "intend to establish their own brand of Jewish exclusivity" and have "Messianic aspirations on the Temple Mount." That "undermines" the stability of Jerusalem as a future shared capital of Israel and Palestine, which is described as "vital" to U.S. interests in a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution.

Even as the new Israeli prime minister arrived in Washington, his government was taking unilateral steps affecting Palestine. On Sunday, it was announced in Israel that the Defense Ministry had approved expansion of four settlements in the West Bank. On Tuesday, the Israeli Supreme Court approved a security wall route running between Beit Arieh, Ofarim and the village of Aboud, an early center of Christianity.

"It would be helpful," says the Hyde report, "if the United States Government committed itself to working with the Israeli government to end support for and prevent the establishment of new realities on the ground, which complicate a negotiated solution over Jerusalem, destroy its multicultural identity and constitute an increase in the political volatility of the city." But will George W. Bush be that helpful?