I had the honor earlier today of addressing a group of Pennsylvania constituents who are in Washington this week to attend the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) national convention. As the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee handling Middle East issues, Israel's continued security and prosperity matter greatly to me. I addressed two key challenges affecting Israel today: the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program and the need to revitalize the Middle East Peace Process.
Iran continues to make progress towards the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. While the Iranian regime claims it is pursuing only a civilian nuclear energy program, it continues to deny international inspectors routine access and transparency into its activities and continues to defy a series of UN Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to cease uranium enrichment. An Iran armed with nuclear weapons would not just represent a mortal threat to Israel's security, but would also be emboldened to engage in regional aggression and provide support to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. I strongly support President Obama's bold use of diplomacy to engage the Iranian leadership, but this diplomacy cannot be an end in itself. Iran must agree to negotiate in good faith; it cannot stall negotiations while it continues to advance its nuclear program. We must also remember that effective diplomacy is complemented by such tools as economic sanctions. For that reason, I strongly support measures to further restrict international exports of reprocessed gasoline to Iran and authorize state and local governments to divest from companies that invest in Iran.
At the same time, it is imperative for the United States to once again assume the mantle of leadership on the Middle East Peace Process and nurture a two-state solution, with the Israeli people and the Palestinian people living side by side in internationally recognized and secure borders. That is why I applaud the President's decision to appoint former Senator George Mitchell to serve as his personal envoy to the region and work constructively with all parties. The passive and disinterested role of the United States in recent years cannot continue. It is in the best interests of Israel to reach a genuine and durable peace with its neighbors.
In January, I was named the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs. Shortly afterwards, I held my first hearing on the civil war between the Government of Sri Lanka and the rebel Tamil Tigers. Sri Lanka is a tiny island nation off the southern coast of India. Since its independence in 1948, the country has had a vibrant democracy, but its potential has been stunted by this civil war. It is often hard for us to think about conflicts unfolding at the other end of the globe, but the war in Sri Lanka has caused a humanitarian crisis of such magnitude that I felt Congress and the Administration had to pay more attention to this issue.
At the hearing, I was troubled to hear about atrocities committed by both sides and stunned that more than 200,000 civilians have been trapped in the conflict zone without adequate food, water, and medical care. The rebel Tigers have been holding tens of thousands of innocent civilians against their will, using them as human shields against the Sri Lankan military, and forcing children to fight. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan military has behaved irresponsibly, too. They have fired on heavily-populated civilian areas, showing a disregard for innocent lives. They have also failed to allow badly needed humanitarian aid to reach civilians who have had to leave their homes to seek shelter in camps for displaced persons.
I know that the United States, through the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is working hard on this issue. The Secretary, other Members of Congress and I have repeatedly called on both sides to agree to a ceasefire and have urged the Government of Sri Lanka to allow NGOs and international organizations better access to the conflict zone so they can alleviate the suffering of thousands of people. I will continue to provide updates on the conflict and what the United States is doing to help the people of Sri Lanka.
For more information on the refugee situation in Sri Lanka, you can follow this link to the UN Refugee Agency.
Now that Congress has entered its April recess, I am busy traveling all over Pennsylvania. It has been a great opportunity for me to visit with Pennsylvanians in their own communities. Here’s an update on some of my travels through Pennsylvania so far:
Pennsylvania Highlands Community College in Johnstown: I had the opportunity to meet with Pennsylvania Highlands Community College (PHCC) President Dr. Walter Asonevich to talk about the college’s program to offer tuition-free classes for workers who have recently lost their jobs. This program, which has started at other Pennsylvania community colleges, gives workers a chance to upgrade their skills so they can compete for better jobs. I was so impressed with this program that I introduced a bill to help other community colleges start their own programs for dislocated workers. I also met with other representatives from PHCC and had a chance to talk with students currently enrolled in PHCC’s tuition assistance program.
NETL in Pittsburgh: Also during my trip to Southwestern Pennsylvania, I took a tour of the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Pittsburgh. I learned more about NETL’s work on emerging energy technologies, including carbon capture and storage and other clean coal approaches. I am very excited that Pennsylvania is leading the way in this important area of energy research and development. Before going into recess, I was pleased that the U.S. Senate passed the amendment I introduced to help accelerate research and development of carbon capture and storage technology, and it was wonderful to see firsthand the work that NETL is doing in that area. NETL’s work puts southwestern Pennsylvania at the forefront of efforts to produce breakthroughs that will reduce carbon emission from existing coal-fired power plants and create jobs and business opportunities for a new generation of energy technology that can be sold throughout the world.
North Broad Street Project in Philadelphia: I was honored to join Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in announcing $475,000 in federal funding for the City of Philadelphia’s North Broad Street Project. This project is an investment in the economic development along the North Broad Street corridor above Philadelphia’s historic City Hall. We expect this investment to help spur new development that will generate new jobs and continue the revitalization of North Broad Street.
Today is our final day in Brussels. We are on the way to the airport, ready to fly back home. It has been a rewarding weekend, full of dialogue and insight, and I am happy that I led this delegation. A side benefit: I have gotten to know some of my fellow Senators better, including John McCain, who sat across from me on the flight over here.
I and a couple of other Members were briefed this morning by Richard Holbrooke, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the emerging results of the Administration's 60 day review of U.S. Policy towards these two nations. While the results are not final -- the President has yet to sign off on them -- Holbrooke painted a sobering picture for us. I urged the Administration to communicate to the American people in a clear fashion our goals and objectives and our ultimate exit strategy. Any strategy for success must have the sustained support of the American people.
I hope you have enjoyed this series of updates from my trip to the Brussels Forum. I look forward to updating you in the future via blogging on my efforts to better serve the people of Pennsylvania.
It has been a full second day at the Brussels Forum, where I am leading a U.S. Congressional delegation this weekend. We started at 745 in the morning with a pair of early bird sessions and didn't stop until late this evening. A highlight in the morning was an engrossing talk by Bob Zoellick, the President of the World Bank, on the current global recession and strategies for getting out of it. I was pleased when he saluted the Global Food Security Act, legislation Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana and I introduced late last year to overhaul U.S. food assistance to developing nations so that we can give the farmers in these nations the tools they need to become self-sufficient on agriculture. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding a hearing on this issue on Tuesday morning.
I was a panelist for one of the late evening sessions, which focused on how the United States and our allies can handle the threats posed by adversaries in the Middle East. While I strongly support the new U.S. approach of diplomatic engagement, demonstrated powerfully by President Obama's stirring New Years greeting to the Iranian people, I emphasized in my remarks that we must always remember diplomacy is only a means, not an end. The challenge posed by Iran's nuclear program and the continuing acts of terrorism perpetrated by Hamas and Hezbollah require both skillful diplomacy and a coherent strategy of incentives and deterrents, including sanctions. And we can never neglect our closest friend and ally in the region -- the state of Israel.
I was concerned when I heard the news of the hazardous materials accident at Wind Gap. Initial reports indicate the spill was well-contained and there are no serious injuries. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Wind Gap and I have asked my staff to keep me updated.
Will check in a final time tomorrow before I leave!