SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney was among the first U.S. politicians to talk with the new prime minister of the Palestinian Authority during his trip to the Middle East last week.
Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., met with Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah, a Palestinian city on the West Bank. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also met with Shtayyeh last week on a separate trip.
"He laid out for us the elements that he thought were essential for a peace agreement to be reached," said Romney, chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism. Murphy is the committee's ranking member.
U.S.-Palestinian tensions have increased since President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The Trump administration last year also significantly cut U.S. funding for the Palestinians, closed the PLO’s representative office in Washington, and merged the U.S. consulate general in Jerusalem, which had dealt independently with the Palestinians for decades, into a single diplomatic mission with the U.S. embassy to Israel.
Although the senators did not meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because he was on vacation, Romney spoke to him by phone. Romney and Netanyahu are longtime friends, dating back to their days at the same Boston corporate consulting firm.
Romney said he and Netanyahu talked mostly about the Trump administration's upcoming peace plan. Two years in the making, Trump's "deal of the century," could be released soon now that Netanyahu has been re-elected.
"He was interested in what we heard from the Palestinian Authority," Romney said.
Romney and Murphy also met with the U.S. ambassador to Israel and officials from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In Iraq, they met with President Barham Salih, the prime minister and the speaker of the country's Council of Representatives. They ended their trip at the U.S. embassy in Jordan.
Iraqi leaders were "extraordinarily forthcoming" about the "mounting and substantial" challenges facing their country, Romney said.
"Clearly, having defeated ISIS from a territory standpoint, now means that the ISIS fighters are returning to their homes throughout Iraq. They're still extremists and represent a danger," he said.
Romney said there is a question in some parts fo the world as to whether U.S. and coalition troops are needed in Iraq. He said he heard from all three Iraqi leaders that American coalition presence is essential to the perception in the country of stability.
The speaker, he said, was able to sweep aside a proposal from an Iranian subset of the council that wanted to expel coalition forces from Iraq.11 comments on this story
"There's a very strong appreciation for Americans being there," Romney said.
Romney said Iraq would benefit from having a U.S. ambassador. Matthew Tueller, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, is awaiting Senate confirmation as ambassador to Iraq.
"I would love to see him get there as soon as possible," Romney said.
Tueller, a Utah native and BYU graduate, has been based in Saudi Arabia since the embassy in Yemen closed in 2015. Romney said Tueller's knowledge of Saudi Arabia would be vital in creating greater stability in the area.