House endorses White House position on Israel, Gaza pullout

By The Associated Press

June 23, 2004

WASHINGTON - The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday joined President George W. Bush in backing Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from all Gaza Strip settlements and confirming that a new Palestinian state, rather than Israel, should take in Palestinian refugees.

The resolution, passed 407-9 with three lawmakers voting present, states that Congress "strongly endorses" the principles laid down by Bush in an April 14 letter to Sharon, including that it was "unrealistic" to expect Israel to pull back to borders that existed before the 1967 Mideast war because of the large Jewish populations that have settled in contested areas.

Sharon has proposed withdrawing from all Gaza Strip settlements but retaining some West Bank enclaves.

The Bush letter, criticized by Palestinians demanding that all Jewish settlements be dismantled, also stated that a final status agreement on a Palestinian state must arrange for settling Palestinian refugees in that state, rather than in Israel.

"Put simply," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who sponsored the resolution with Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer "Israel must not retreat behind its 1949 borders, and there is no so-called right of return" for refugees.

"The president believes that this plan will make a real contribution toward peace and so do I," Hoyer said. "This plan in my view is a bold historic opportunity to break the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian relations."

The second part of the resolution, which now goes to the Senate but is not legally binding, supports international efforts to build the will of Palestinians to fight terrorism and prevent the areas from which Israel has withdrawn from posing a threat to the security of Israel.

There was some muted criticism, among Democrats, of the level of administration involvement in the Mideast peace process and the wording of the resolution.

Rep. Nick Rahall, who has complained that past resolutions on the Mideast have been one-sided in favor of Israel, said the language this time was slightly better, but asked "where were the Palestinians in this dialogue? ... Where are the Palestinians involved in the discussions upon the no-return issue?"