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Why this congressman from New Jersey traveled to Israel twice in a week

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, sensed a genuine effort to reach a compromise on judicial overhaul

Israel is often mentioned as being the same size as New Jersey. For Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a four-term Democrat from Bergen County, Israel was his second home this week. 

He had just returned from a high-profile trip with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. On Sunday, he was back in Jerusalem joining a congressional delegation headed by Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. 

In an interview on Friday, ahead of his second trip, Gottheimer said he came back from Israel “extremely optimistic” about the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship. “I will tell you, there are those who were not on the trip that are trying to drive a wedge between our two countries,” he said. “After this trip, it was reinforced that this relationship is ironclad.”

Gottheimer participated in meetings that the 12-member Democratic delegation had with Israel’s top leaders, attended Israel’s Memorial Day events and visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. 

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) on April 24, 2023. Courtesy of Rep. Josh Gottheimer's office

It was Jeffries’ first trip to Israel as leader of the House Democratic Party and sixth since entering Congress a decade ago. 

Gottheimer said the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul proposal – which triggered a political, economic and diplomatic backlash – was a subject that was raised in all of the meetings. “People have different perspectives on domestic political issues in Israel and their different perspectives were shared,” Gottheimer said. “But everyone around the table made it very clear how invested we are in the relationship.”

While he declined to share his views on the matter publicly, Gottheimer supported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s move to temporarily suspend the legislative process with the hope of reaching a broad consensus. Talks are currently ongoing at the Israeli president’s residence in Jerusalem in an effort to reach a compromise. Gottheimer said he sensed in his conversations with both sides a “genuine effort” to come to an agreement on judicial reform. 

Maintaining bipartisan support for Israel

Gottheimer said he decided to join McCarthy’s delegation, along with five other Democrats, to add a bipartisan tone to the trip, which will include a speech by McCarthy to the Israeli Knesset on Monday. “I’m always concerned about those in both parties who are trying to politicize an issue that should be completely bipartisan,” he said. 

Netanyahu referenced the high-level visits in an interview Sunday morning with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, adding that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also recently visited Israel. “I don’t know of many countries that have, within a few days, the Democratic and Republican leaders of both sides of the aisle coming to Jerusalem,” he said. “I’m confident about the strength of our alliance.” 

In between the two trips, Gottheimer voted on a bipartisan resolution celebrating the U.S.-Israel relationship and encouraging peace in the Middle East. Eighteen Democrats and one Republican, Thomas Massie from Kentucky, opposed the measure. Some critics pointed out that it omitted any mention of a two-state solution. Opposition to the resolution was more than double the number of Democrats who opposed the replenishment of Israel’s anti-missile Iron Dome defense system in 2021. 

Asked if he was worried that number would grow in the coming years, Gottheimer said that as a Jew he always has “anxiety about everything” but he did not think the group of members holding a “misguided” view on Israel are “growing like wildfire.” 

“But I think it’s very important that we address these issues that people are concerned about and we fight back against naysayers like those who are trying to always put conditions on aid and don’t understand the value and importance of this relationship,” he added. 

In February, Gottheimer managed to convince Rep. Ilhan Omar, a progressive Democrat who was removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee for her sharp criticism of Israel and for past comments that were perceived as antisemitic, to co-sponsor a resolution that recognizes Israel “as America’s legitimate and democratic ally” and that condemns antisemitism. “I think that was an important step,” he said. “These things don’t always happen overnight.” Gottheimer said he’s continuing to add more co-sponsors before bringing it to the floor for a vote.

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