x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 September 2017

Leading congressional Israeli supporter affirms US-UAE ties

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the foreign affairs committee of the US House of Representatives, affirmed the importance of UAE-US ties in a dialogue conducted in Miami

MIAMI // It was a rare, semi-public discussion between the UAE's ambassador to the US and one of the most powerful members of the US Congress.

Yousef Al Otaiba and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the foreign affairs committee of the US House of Representatives, affirmed the importance of UAE-US ties in a dialogue conducted in front of a packed room of about 150 students, pro-Israel campus activists, and retirees at the University of Miami in suburban Coral Gables.

"People in the United States need to realise that the UAE has always been there to help the US... [we are] making sure students understand what a critical ally, what a strategic ally the UAE is," Ms Ros-Lehtinen told reporters after the session on Friday, which was closed to reporters.

The comments appear to represent a change in tone by Ms Ros-Lehtinen, staunch supporter of Israel who authored legislation in 2008 that sought to block the civilian nuclear deal between the US and UAE. She also proposed an immediate suspension of funding to Unesco after the world body officially recognised Palestine last October.

Afterward, Ms Ros-Lehtinen said she views the UAE as one of America's most reliable allies in a region whose political configuration is in flux, particularly due to worries about the aims of Iran's nuclear programme.

"[Iran] is a problem not just for Israel, but also for the UAE and they've got to find ways to make those sanctions work," she said. "Our Arab friends are more positive about negotiations. We don't know if that's the route to go, but we all face a problem."

A member of Congress since 1989, she has criticised the Obama administration for not doing enough to pressure Iran on its nuclear programme. She has also said that the US must support a pre-emptive strike on Tehran's nuclear infrastructure if Israel chooses to carry one out, but the situation must not come to that point.

During the 90-minute discussion, Mr Otaiba said that after 10 years of war in the region, and with the Arab Spring continuing to sow uncertainty, a diplomatic solution is imperative. Arab leaders would prefer negotiations to a military strike.

Despite differences between the congresswoman and the ambassador over how to deal with Iran, they praised each other for helping build ties that benefit both Abu Dhabi and Washington.

"She is the biggest supporter of the UAE in the entire Congress," Mr Al Otaiba told reporters.

Added Ms Ros-Lehtinen: "I prefer to stand back and get a bigger picture, and for an audience that is not as familiar with the UAE, I want them to know that they are our strong partner. On the basic issues, you can't ask for a better partner than the UAE. But like in a family, I can say to him, 'I don't think you're doing a great job here' and he says that to me about the United States, as well."

In her long congressional career, Ms Ros-Lehtinen has proved an untiring advocate for issues she and her constituents in south Florida hold dear - in particular, support for Israel and opposition to Fidel Castro and communist rule in Cuba.

Thus, any differences she might have with any specific UAE policy at the moment is secondary to her defence of Israel, a prominent Middle East expert in Washington said.

"This is a function of the fact that the UAE and other Gulf countries are taking a strong anti-Iran position, and this fits with her view of what policy should be," said Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

While the US constitution grants the president with the powers of commander-in-chief of the armed forces - and by extension, gives the White House most control over the country's foreign policy - Congress has enormous influence over foreign affairs due to its role in approving how the government spends its money.

That gives the Ms Ros-Lehtinen, as chairwoman of the House foreign affairs committee and the most senior Republican woman in the House, enormous influence in advancing the president's agenda abroad or - in the case the member of the Democratic Party currently residing in the White House - hindering it.

"She is certainly making life for the administration very difficult," Ms Ottaway said.

So how did Ms Ros-Lehtinen, who fled Cuba to Miami when she was 8, become one of the most powerful members of Congress?

In large measure, the foundation of Ms Ros-Lehtinen's ascent is her ability to successfully represent the interests of her diverse, and in many ways politically opposite, constituents.

The 18th district of Florida is home to some of the state's politically powerful Cuban-American population, who are opposed to even the slightest softening of the US embargo of Cuba and are generally social conservatives. The district is also home to a sizeable Jewish constituency, who are predictably pro-Israel, along with a large gay community.

Contrary to what some of her foreign-policy positions suggest, "she's not a straight Republican ideologue on lots of issues", said Susan Macmanus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida and one of the most respected observers of Florida politics.

"On foreign affairs she's very, very conservative, but she's a moderate on women, gay rights, education... immigration," she added.

In this presidential election year, Ms Ros-Lehtinen enjoys a significant asset: her popularity with Florida's 600,000 Cuban-American voters gives her national clout. In recent years, Ms Ros-Lehtinen has been one of the three who the Miami Herald calls the "ultimate Cuban-American endorsement trifecta".

foreign.desk@thenational.ae