New House foreign affairs head sees new US path on Mideast, Venezuela

The new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Tuesday the United States would look to resume aid to the Palestinians as he voiced hope for reviving a multilateral approach to the world under President-elect Joe Biden.

In an interview with AFP, Representative Gregory Meeks also called for a fresh look at the Venezuelan crisis and vowed to use his role to press human rights concerns he said had been ignored under outgoing President Donald Trump.

Meeks said he would look to expand humanitarian aid including to the Palestinians after the staunchly pro-Israel Trump cut off nearly all funding to them, including contributions to feed and educate refugees.

"I'm a firm believer in the two-state solution, providing both parties with self-determination, because that's the only way I believe that we can ensure a Jewish state of Israel that is viable and a peaceful Palestinian state, where they end up becoming interdependent in trade and other mechanisms," Meeks said.

"So we may need to restart the US assistance to Palestinian people, demonstrating that the United States is ready to lead again," he said.

Meeks played down the prospect of leveraging aid to Israel to pressure it to accept a Palestinian state, saying he did not want to touch a $38 billion, decade-spanning defense package approved by former president Barack Obama in 2016 before leaving office.

"I'm not for altering any of those dollars," Meeks said. "There may be other dollars not included therein that we can possibly look at."

Meeks also promised a supportive role from Congress as Biden attempts to restart diplomacy with Iran after Trump pulled out of Obama's nuclear accord and slapped sweeping sanctions on the cleric-run state.

"If you look at what President Trump has done in his maximum pressure campaign, the big question you ask yourself is has it made America safer. The answer is a big capital no," Meeks said.

The New York congressman, who is the first African-American to lead the committee, won the chairmanship in a contest against Representative Joaquin Castro, who had vowed to champion the voices of Palestinians amid rising criticism in the Democratic Party of Israel's rightward turn.

Meeks succeeded Eliot Engel, a passionate defender of Israel, who lost his seat in a primary challenge from his left.

- Venezuelans 'laughing' -

Meeks charged that Trump, who is angrily pressuring allies to overturn his election defeat, had laid bare hypocrisy in his two-year drive to topple Venezuela's leftist leader Nicolas Maduro.

"Clearly, this administration is not on the right track. In fact, I think many individuals in Venezuela are laughing because, to me, what Trump is doing with this election is very similar to what Maduro has tried to do in Venezuela," Meeks said.

Meeks has traveled several times to Venezuela and met Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez, with Obama sending the congressman to represent the United States at the leftist firebrand's funeral in 2013.

Meeks said that the United States needs to be "working collectively in a multilateral way" with regional players and international organizations.

"We can't come in and say this is who your president is. That's not our role; that's the role of the Venezuelan people," Meeks said.

Meeks stopped short of saying Biden should reverse Trump's recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, a position backed by most Latin American and European nations after 2018 elections widely seen as fraudulent and an economic crisis that led 5.4 million people to flee Venezuela.

He acknowledged election irregularities under Maduro and said that any solution needs to focus on repairing institutions, including bringing the opposition into the election commission.

- Pressure on Bolsonaro -

In one area of sharp divergence with the outgoing administration, Meeks promised to promote human rights in Brazil, whose far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, is an ideological bedfellow of Trump.

Meeks said he wanted to discuss with Bolsonaro the marginalization of the Afro-Brazilian, indigenous and LGBTQ communities and would seek common cause with Brazilian lawmakers and NGOs.

"There's a role for everybody to play, and if we can get on the same page and start talking and putting the same pressure on the Bolsonaros of the world, I believe we can have a major impact."