Last week, I traveled on a mission with the American Israel Educational Foundation to Israel with several other Members of Congress as the Obama Administration attempts to finalize an agreement on the Iranian nuclear deal. While in Israel, I learned of the serious ramifications this deal could have on the only democracy in the Middle East, and our own national security, and so much more. I hope you will take a few moments to read this special edition of From Our Nation’s Capitolchronicling my time in Israel.
Monday, August 10: After arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel, yesterday afternoon, we traveled to Jerusalem where we are staying and were honored last night to hear from Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel. While we are here to learn of the many challenges facing Israel and better understand the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, the topic on everyone’s mind is, of course, the Iran nuclear deal. As would be expected of an appointee of the current administration, Ambassador Shapiro is in favor of approval of the deal and laid out his case for support as well as answering questions about the proposal. We waste no time this morning as we head to one of the hotbeds of activity in this volatile region, the Gaza Strip in Southern Israel, where we visit a kibbutz in Kfar Aza.
Kibbutzim are small communities in Israel where they have schools, grocery stores and other businesses within walking distance. owever, this kibbutz is different from most as it is located literally on the fence separating Israel from the Gaza Strip and life here is lived in the shadow of rocket fire. We tour the area with a local resident who shows us the bomb shelters that are frequently used by the residents and takes us to the fence separating Israel and the Gaza Strip where we are able to see Gaza City in the distance. The local resident tells us of the sirens that frequently sound warning the residents of incoming missiles and the psychological effects it has on the children living there.
Afterwards, we head to Kibbutz Nir Am where we visit with soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In Israel, all 18-year-olds are required to join the military, with females being required to serve a minimum of two years and males a minimum of three years. The maturity and responsibility of the young men and women serving in the IDF is certainly impressionable and their love for their homeland is quite obvious.
Amy and I spent time with a 22-year-old paratrooper who shared with us the story of calling his mother the day he got his first assignment, falsely assuring her he had not been assigned to the Gaza Strip as he stood on the border performing his duty. Next, we head to Ashkelon where we visit an Iron Dome battery field and have a briefing of this vital system. The Iron Dome system is a missile interceptor system that helps protect Israeli citizens from the missiles that are fired from across the border.
Once we are back in Jerusalem, we have a briefing with Professor Sam Lehman-Wilzig, chairman of the School of Communication at Bar-Ilan University, who gives us an overview of Israel’s political system, explaining the Knesset and other elements of their democratic government. In Israel, voter turnout is typically between 75-80 percent and they must be present on election day to vote.
Finally, we hear from the founding editor of The Times of Israel, David Horovitz, who discussed politics in Israel today and focused on the Iran nuclear deal, which he says recent polls show that 70-75 percent of Israeli citizens oppose. He also shared with us that he has two sons and a daughter and that his daughter had begun her military service today. Although he was obviously proud, his concern as a father for the safety of his daughter was quite apparent as well.
Tuesday, Aug. 11: This morning we are honored to be the guests of the Honorable Reuven Rivlin, president of the State of Israel, at his residence. Although the position of president in Israeli politics is largely a ceremonial one, the president does play a very important role in helping to choose the prime minister when the majority party is elected.
While President Rivlin discussed a number of issues and emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, his main focus is on the Iran nuclear deal. Although he is very much opposed to the deal and emphasizes its importance to the future of the region, he is clear that he is not trying to influence the upcoming vote of the 37 legislators in attendance today.
Next, we travel to some of the outlying neighborhoods around Jerusalem to see the vibrant neighborhoods that have developed in the areas that were taken during the 6 day war in 1967 and see the 455-mile security fence that has been constructed to protect the Israeli people from suicide bombers and Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank.
Following this, we head back to the hotel where we hear from Isaac Herzog, chair of the Zionist Union Party, the opposition party in Israel. Although he and his party differ with the current prime minister and majority party on a number of social issues, they too are opposed to the Iran nuclear deal.
Later in the afternoon, we tour the Old City of Jerusalem and the Holy Basin. In the Old City we see the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the holiest shrines of the three monotheistic religions.
The Holy Basin is the land surrounding the Old City, including the Mount of Olives and the Western Wall. We had the opportunity to visit the area where archaeologists are continuing to excavate the foundation of King David’s Palace and walked through the tunnels where water was run through the Old City and where David’s men had entered to conquer Jerusalem. Needless to say, this was a very emotional experience for all of us.
Afterwards, we heard from Dan Senor, co-author of “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.” Israel has experienced enormous economic success in recent years, particularly in the technology sector, exceeded only by the Silicon Valley area.
Wednesday, Aug. 12: We begin our day with a briefing from Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, who is the director of the Institute for National Security Studies and former head of IDF Intelligence. He spoke on the Iran nuclear deal and the threat that it posed to Israel and the Middle East. Afterwards, we headed to the prime minister’s office, where we met for two hours with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
I attended the prime minister’s speech to Congress earlier this year and felt it was one of the greatest speeches I have ever heard, however, after witnessing his interaction with the 37 members of Congress today, I think he is even more impressive before a smaller group.
Prime Minister Netanyahu started by outlining his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and followed by answering questions from our delegation. He used a white board during his presentation, was succinct and clear and offered alternatives to the current plan. He was adamant in his opposition to the deal and referred to the next few months as pivotal in history.
I have said that the Iran nuclear deal could be the most important issue I ever face in my career and I believe that even more now.
Afterwards, we loaded up into security vans and traveled to Ramallah in the West Bank where we met with the Honorable Dr. Rami Hamdallah, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, to discuss Israeli-Palestinian relations. Both prime ministers say they want peace between their people, but after hearing the major issues that divide them, I feel it will take major concessions on both sides to bring peace in the future.
During our question and answer session with Prime Minister Hamdallah, he was asked about Hamas and he admitted that he had no control over them and that currently the Palestinians are divided. He was also asked about the Iran nuclear deal and voiced his emphatic opposition, as well as his concern that it would bring even more chaos to the region.
Later in the afternoon, we visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum in what was without question one of the most solemn experiences of my life. Although I have studied the Holocaust before and thought I had a true understanding of this darkest of times, today’s experience taught me of man’s inhumanity to other men and reminded all of us that we can never forget this nor ever let it happen again.
Later in the evening, we meet with representatives for organizations in Israel serving at-risk populations. Amy and I visited with a paramedic who assisted in Israel’s response to the Nepal earthquake. She had received her paramedic training while serving in the military and continued it as a career. Her stories of helping the victims of the Nepal earthquake were incredible- like many of the young people we met in Israel she was mature beyond her years and had a love of country and service that was amazing.
Thursday, Aug. 13: We are traveling to northern Israel this morning and along the way, our tour guide points out various historical sites as well as sites of political significance. Israel is one of the smallest countries in the world, comparable in size to New Jersey, with a population around 8 million. Half of Israel’s population and infrastructure are in a 60-mile strip between the West Bank and the Mediterranean Sea with one point in the middle of the country less than 9 miles wide.
Our first stop is at Alfei Menashe in the Western Bank where a stunning view gives us the opportunity to see how close the neighborhoods of different religions are located. Our next stop is at Kochav HaYam, located on the Mediterranean Sea, where we have a briefing from Ari Scacher, who is the Iron Dome systems project manager.
He discusses Israel’s multi-layer missile defense system and introduces us to David’s Sling weapons system, which will become active in the first quarter of 2016 and will protect Israel from long range and more powerful missiles in the future.
Next, as we travel to the Golan Heights, we pass through the Jezreel Valley, described as the natural land bridge between Africa and Asia, and the home of the majority of Israel’s Arab citizens. We pass over the Jordan River as we leave Israel to enter the Golan Heights on our way to the Mt. Bental Overlook, where we are able to see into both Syria and Lebanon. Here we have briefings with Col. Guy Shafran, head of the IDF 474th Brigade and Col. (ret.) Kobi Marom. Both discuss terrorist movements around Israel, including Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria and stress how Mt. Bental is a strategic military location. Tonight is the only night we spend outside of Jerusalem on our trip as we stay in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee in order to visit more sites in the area tomorrow.
Friday, Aug. 14: Our first stop this morning is to the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, called by many the most studied and read speech of any religion in history. Next, we went to St. Peter’s Church in Capernaum, where archaeologists believe that Peter’s home was also located. Our guide, who is also an archaeologist, referred to this as one of the greatest Christian finds in history. St. Peter’s Church is where Jesus was preaching and performing miracles when a paralyzed man was lowered through the roof for Jesus to heal. Capernaum is often referred to as Jesus’ home away from home.
Following this, we went to the Yardemit Baptismal site on the Jordan River where Amy and I, along with others in our group, took part in a baptismal ceremony. Although we have both been baptized before, this was a very special ceremony for both of us to be baptized in the same river that Jesus was baptized.
After this special and emotional experience we head back to Jerusalem where we will be celebrating the Sabbath tonight with a Jewish family. Shortly after dusk, along with eight other members of our group, Amy and I were welcomed to the home of Linda and Gil Troy and their family to have a traditional Sabbath eve dinner. We sang traditional Jewish songs, participated in various toasts and prayed traditional Jewish prayers along with the Troys and their children as they explained the meaning of each ritual. During our meal we learned of their life in Israel and their love of their homeland.
Saturday, Aug. 15: Today is our last day in Israel, so we start the day early in order to try to pack in as much as we can. We begin by heading to Masada National Park, which is located on the Dead Sea. Masada is the site of the last stand of the Jews in Israel after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Holy Temple in 70 AD.
King Herod had used this mountaintop fortress in the Judean Desert and a group of Jewish Zealots fled to it to avoid the Roman Army. It took the Roman Army many months to scale the mountain, but when they were finally successful, as a final act of defiance, the Jewish zealots chose to commit suicide instead of being captured.
Next, we explored the area around the Dead Sea and actually took a float before heading to Bethlehem to see the area where Jesus was born. We visited Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, Manger Square and the Milk Grotto. For us, as Christians, this was a very moving experience.
While Bethlehem is located just three miles from Jerusalem, it is under full control of the Palestinian Authority and the two cities are separated by a security barrier and border checkpoint where those traveling between the two cities must pass through. Fittingly, this was our last stop on our visit to Israel.
Many people had told me that this trip would change my life and they were right. To walk where Jesus walked, to be baptized in the Jordan River, to be at the Sea of Galilee — for a Christian, all of these experiences are life changing.
But along with the religious experiences, I learned so much about Israel. Israel is strong, very strong. The love of family, of country, of democracy and of freedom, all of the things that we love as Americans, Israelis love as well. The maturity and responsibility of the young people who are required to join the IDF when they turn 18, the families living near the Gaza strip under the constant threat of missile attacks — the people of Israel are resilient, but perhaps most important they are happy.
I recognize now how important the United States is to Israel and, more importantly, how important Israel is to the United States. We have an ally in the Middle East and her name is Israel. Without a doubt, this trip has given me an important first-hand perspective solidifying my drive and commitment to stopping the dangerous Iran nuclear deal.