Interview: Sen. Gillibrand in Israel, Fears Syria Effect

NEW YORK

The ongoing attrition caused by the civil war convulsing Syria is seen with alarm in capitals across the Middle East, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told Hamodia in an interview Monday.

Having just returned from a trip to Israel and other Middle East nations, the New York Democrat said she will fight for more U.S. economic aid to Jordan, military and to Israel, and warned Syrian rebels and Egypt to move closer to Israel.

“The regional stability issue is a major concern for both the U.S. and Israel,” Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand led a team of senators that included Republicans John Hoeven of North Dakota and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Democrats Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mo Cowan of Massachusetts. They left last week Tuesday and returned to the United States on Saturday.

“This is my own CODEL (congressional delegation trip) and I brought a bipartisan group of senators to the Middle East,” she said, “because I really wanted to talk about national security issues, Middle East peace issues, security issues in the Middle East. So we took meetings that would inform us of those issues.”

Those meetings included Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and a group of Syrian opposition groups based in Turkey.

The senator said that Jordanian defense officials told the CODEL that 2,500 new refugees cross into the desert kingdom every day, adding to the more than 400,000 refugees there already.

While the camps specially set up to absorb the refugees are bursting with 100,000 residents, an additional 300,000 Syrians have moved into Jordan’s cities, taking jobs at depressed wages and exacerbating the already sky-high unemployment rate.

“My personal view is that, yes, it is destabilizing the country,” Gillibrand said. “It’s having a huge economic impact on an already vulnerable economy. The unemployment rate is something like 30 percent. But unemployment amongst youth is closer to 60 or 70 percent.”

She said that the greatest fears are that idle citizens are moving closer to the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose affiliates have already taken over Gaza and Egypt.

Gillibrand promised her hosts that upon her return to Washington she would push for a major aid package for Jordan, on top of the $200 million President Barack Obama said last month he would ask Congress for.

“If you’re going to strengthen their economy you are going to strengthen their government,” she said. “…Those investments will create stability, which is essential to keeping King Abdullah in power and ceding control to radical groups or to the Muslim Brotherhood, for example.”

The group moved on to Israel, for a day and half of meetings with Netanyahu, defense officials and a tour of the Iron Dome missile defense system which is funded by Congress.

She said that the clear message from Netanyahu is that Iran remains the single urgent threat to Israel. While the prime minister said he would never cede Israel’s defense to any other nation, he added that he was reassured by Obama’s March visit that the U.S. was committed to not allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

“We had a two-hour long meeting, which was surprising because it was only scheduled for 45 minutes,” Gillibrand said. “But it made a difference, because we really got to delve into these topics aggressively on how the U.S. can continue to cooperate with Israel.”

Netanyahu also expressed concern about the spillover effect from the Syrian civil war and the strength of the Jordanian monarchy.

The group also met separately with Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home party is a senior partner in Netanyahu’s coalition. A visit with Finance Minister Yair Lapid unraveled, but he promised a rain check to the Senate delegation during a scheduled trip to Washington later this month.

The trip was short, and focused heavily on defense and security, leaving no time for touring. But Gillibrand marveled that from her vantage point in their Tel Aviv hotel room, “just the view of the water alone is sightseeing!”

The group stopped in Turkey on the way home for a series of meetings with Syrian opposition groups.

Gillibrand, who won reelection in November by 45 percent, one of the highest of any senator in history, has recently stepped up her profile politically and policy-wise. She was in Iowa last year to speak to the Iowa Democratic delegation, and has become a voice for her party on hot issues such as gun control.

While Gillibrand insists she is not running for president — she hopes Hillary Clinton will — a trip to Israel is a must for any official aspiring for a national profile. But she chalked up her Israel visit as part of her duties as a member of the Armed Forces committee.

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