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Lankford: U.S. pivot away from Middle East risks ‘exposing that whole region to China’

Fresh off a trip to the Middle East, the Oklahoma Republican discussed ways to mitigate tensions in the region, bipartisanship in the Senate and how the U.S. should approach Iran

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Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) speaks alongside other Republican Senators during a press conference on rising gas an energy prices at the U.S. Capitol on October 27, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), a longtime staunch supporter of Israel, was a key member in the formation last year of the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus. In mid-January, around the first anniversary of the caucus’ launch, Lankford, along with Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), led a bipartisan delegation of senators to the Accords’ signatory countries: Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

On this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s podcast, Lankford joined co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein for a discussion on how the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus came into being, U.S. efforts to deter Iran, China and Russia, improving Israeli-Palestinian relations, UNRWA and bipartisanship in the Senate.

Below are excerpts from the conversation.

The creation of the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus: “So the caucus itself was obviously birthed out of the Abraham Accords agreement that happened almost three years ago now. [The agreement was signed in September 2020.] The formation of that agreement was so historic…the concern was, would this current White House pick it up, would the State Department keep going, or would they say, ‘Eh, it was a Trump project.’ It really wasn’t designed to be the ‘Trump accords,’ it was an agreement made between Arab nations and between Israel to be able to start an ongoing normalization. So, it really was birthed out of, ‘we need to keep this momentum going in the region.’ The Abraham Accords were built with three nations initially, then it kept expanding, added Sudan and Morocco, but it was designed to keep going, to keep expanding. And so we wanted to basically put our foot on the gas to say this is a formula for normalization in the region, for interacting with business relationships, with commerce, with energy, with water issues, with common issues just among people on it, and to get people talking to each other. So we formed the caucus, [Sen.] Jacky Rosen and I formed the caucus, and started expanding it out to other members, and said, ‘Now let’s be practical, what can we do to keep this momentum going?’”

On the United States’ ability to deter Iran and China at the same time: “We’re the superpower of the world, we can absolutely walk and chew gum at the same time. And quite frankly, if we pull ourselves out of the Middle East, we are exposing that whole region to China. If you want to focus more on China, you’re not only going to look at the Pacific area, you’re going to look at the Middle East and you’re gonna look at Africa, because that’s where China is on the move. So it would actually be unwise for us. It was a poor choice of words to talk about a ‘pivot to Asia,’ when those first terms came out, we’re going to ‘pivot to Asia,’ because that gave the impression we’re going to pivot away. I think instead, it should have been, ‘we’ve lost enough focus on Asia and we need to make sure that we’re also paying attention there,’ rather than implying we’re pivoting away from the Middle East towards China, and now we’re not going to pay attention to the Middle East. I think it’d be unwise for the United States to pivot away from the Middle East. We’ve seen enough wars that have occurred there, we’ve seen the influence that American values can bring to the region and the dialogue, and quite frankly, the number of American businesses that are already there. When you go through Abu Dhabi or you go through any area in Bahrain, you see American businesses everywhere, we’re very engaged in the region. In addition to that, as I mentioned before, if you’re going to focus in on China, you better be focusing in on that region as well, because China is a major customer of all the oil and gas that’s coming from that region, and they’re actively working to be able to pursue business relationships with everyone in that region to put their surveillance technology there, to be able to put their Huawei telephone systems in all those regions so they can track every phone call in every country. They’re actively on the move to be able to harvest data there and to be able to do security intel in those countries the same as everywhere else, so we should stay engaged.

“I would also tell you this whole issue about Iran — they’re on the move. And I think a lot of people are focused on high-altitude balloons from China and other issues with China that are very real, and they’re losing track that every week Iran is expanding their terrorist footprint in the area. They’re destabilizing every country in the region. What’s happening with Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, what’s happening in the West Bank at this point, in Jenin and all these refugee areas where they’re seeing violence, that is completely Iran that is funding that, organizing that and stoking that violence in the region. what UAE faces every day, when they get up in the morning and look across the Gulf. They’re facing a very real threat that just a year ago — most Americans don’t know — just a year ago, Iran was launching missiles into the UAE, our ally, just week after week of launching missiles from Yemen into the UAE, so this is not some sort of stale piece that’s happening there. This is a heated issue for them that Americans just don’t notice.”

On keeping the United States’ eye trained on Iran: “I want to make sure the Biden administration doesn’t take their eye off the ball and what’s happening with Iran, because I just think it’s a really big mistake and I think we will regret it long-term diplomatically if we do. And, quite frankly, economically if we do as well, as well as just basic human life and dignity. So part of my mission is to make sure they don’t take their eye off the ball on Iran, so I continue to be able to raise these things. Last year, I raised this motion…to be able to bring up the Iran nuclear negotiations and [say] that we can’t engage with these negotiations unless we’re also dealing with Iranian terrorism at the same time, and put some very simple things [that]Republicans and Democrats…could agree to. We put that on the floor, I won that, I think it was a surprise to the administration; in fact they were actively working against it to say, ‘Don’t vote for this,’ but enough Democrats said, ‘No, that’s a reasonable thing to be able to put as a boundary.’ Within a week, the administration then announced they’re going to back, because I won that and it was an overwhelming voice in the Senate, the administration then backed up from the Iran nuclear negotiations with Iran…

“The current bills that I’ve got, as I mentioned before, [are] dealing with our export controls to make sure that we are not exporting or not allowing the secondary export, it’s not normally one of our major American companies, it’s somebody that buys from an American company and then ships it over to Iran; we want to make sure we’re putting export controls on it so we’re not facilitating Iran’s weapons program with American technology that’s in it. That’s a reasonable thing to be able to do, as well as to be able to help add additional firepower to our sanctions dealing with Iran sending all these weapons systems to Russia to be able to attack Ukraine. So there are practical things that we can do that I feel like I can continue to be able to keep this in front of the administration, in front of people, quite frankly, at home in Oklahoma and across the nation, to say, ‘we can not pivot away from this, it’s too great of a threat.’”

What needs to be done to achieve peace between Israels and Palestinians: “So a couple of things here: business integration makes a big difference. If people are actually doing business together, their families get a chance to know each other, they have an economic gain on both sides, you tend to tone the volume down. It’s the same kind of conversation happening with Lebanon right now. Lebanon is not going to attack Israel if they understand they’ve got a natural gas field that they’re both sharing out in the Med, and it has great financial benefit for them to have a stable relationship with Israel on it, it is to their benefit as well. It is to the benefit of the Palestinian people to also have peace with Israel and to have stable relationships there. Energy, water, business activities, all those things matter, so the Palestinian Authority, number one, has got to decide who actually leads the Palestinian Authority, who’s the leader there and what’s the chain of succession coming out after this? Because right now, who does Israel negotiate with to be able to say they can actually speak for the Palestinian people? They’ve not had elections in years and years and years and years, and there’s not broad support for current leadership there. So they’ve got to have a leader that they know actually speaks for the people, and they can have the opportunity to be able to sit down and be able to actually negotiate and get things done. There’s got to be business cooperation that’s happening on both sides of the line, economic cooperation. There are some areas for the Israelis to be able to be engaged in unique ways there. There’s a big solar farm that the Israelis and the Jordanians are putting together, and they’re going to sell some of that solar power to the Palestinians. I think they should also work to actually put some of that solar farm in Palestinian areas as well so it’s not just in Jordan. In Palestinian areas, they can have cooperation. Everyone seems to nod their head and say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea,’ but it’s an area where you can have real integration together, and terrorist activities in that area know that [if] you have terrorist activity around those solar farms, your next door neighbor actually loses power. So that becomes a bigger issue where you’re more integrated in that way and there’s more dialogue. But it’s an issue long term that the people in the region have got to be able to determine it, but it begins with the Palestinians determining: Do you want peace, or is this going to be the rise of Islamic Jihad and Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon and others? Is that what’s going to drive all this? Or are we gonna actually sit down and actually have a peaceful option for people to be able to coexist next door to each other?”

On bipartisanship in the Senate: “There’s a lot of bipartisan conversation and, quite frankly, nonpartisan conversation. I’ve been a big believer in — I know we’ve talked a lot about Israel during this conversation — Israel should always be a nonpartisan issue. It needs to be very clear to everyone in the region and in Israel, this is not a Republican/Democrat thing, we don’t have preferences on whether it’s Naftali Bennett or whether it’s Benjamin Netanyahu, we’re going to work with Israel period, and we’re going to be engaged. So for me, the issues come down to, let’s find the issues where we know we have common ground. Now we obviously have some pretty big differences on budgets, we have some differences in issues on abortion, we have some differences there, we can find pretty easily around town the areas where we have very strong disagreement, and we should express our own opinions and the opinions of our state and the regions that we represent. But in the areas of common ground, let’s find common ground. That’s the thing about the Senate, you’ve got to be a grown-up. I’m going to disagree with you strongly on one issue, but tomorrow we’re going to work on a different issue that we both agree on together, and we got to be able to get that done. That’s what grown-ups do, you find the areas where we can actually make progress, we work together even when we have disagreements. But I’m not going to be such a jerk with somebody today on an issue we disagree on that I can’t work on the issues we do agree on tomorrow. So those are just decisions individuals have to make…

“We had a bipartisan delegation that went to the southwest border of the United States. It’s been a pretty contentious partisan issue about immigration issues in the southwest border. We had eight of us that went four and four down to the southwest border to be able to look at the same set of facts and to say, ‘OK, let’s not read our own bias on this, let’s actually go look at the same set of facts and let’s talk about it together.’ So yeah, there’s partisanship, but there’s also a lot of dialogue that’s happening as well.”

Bonus lightning round: Favorite Hebrew, Yiddish or Arabic word or phrase? “The term ‘lo ruhama’ was also a child’s name, and it means ‘no compassion,’ and it’s been kind of a running joke with my wife and I for years and years and years. If I say something sarcastically, she’ll look back at me and she’ll go, ‘lo ruhama,’ meaning, ‘Come on, have a little bit of compassion here, as well.’” Favorite place visited in any of the Abraham Accords countries? “It’s going to be Israel. I’ve been to Israel five times…The City of David, the excavations that are happening there are so incredibly moving. To be there, to see the excavations, to see them just pulling back history and to be able to walk through that area, it’s just a remarkable excavation. If anybody gets into Jerusalem ever, there’s a million things to be able to see and to be able to do there, but getting to the City of David…I encourage everybody to go and see it.” Favorite Jewish food? “It would not be matzah, I would just go and tell you that. Favorite Mediterranean foods: I really like lamb, I really like hummus, but I don’t know if there’d be a favorite Jewish food in that sense. My wife and I actually really do enjoy Mediterranean food, period.”

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