Jerusalem - The summer tour season to Israel for American politicians reached its peak this month, with nearly 10% of the House of Representatives visiting Jerusalem in the past two weeks. Forty Republicans and Democrats met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in two separate rounds of intensive touring mixed with high-level policy meetings.
This year’s tours came at a crucial moment, as Congress is considering a massive and controversial arms deal proposed by the White House and aimed at both Israel and Saudi Arabia. In addition, American policymakers are readying for an international summit in November that will deal with the situation in the Middle East. The Congressional trips, sponsored by pro-Israeli groups, have become one of the main attractions offered during the summer recess.
“They have us on our feet at 8 o’clock in the morning, and we run around until late at night,” said one of the staff members accompanying the members of Congress.
For first-time congressman Paul Hodes, the visit was also a chance to get a closer look at the Jewish state. Hodes, the first Jewish congressman to represent New Hampshire, had never visited Israel.
“This is my first trip outside the United States as a congressman, and I’m happy it is to Israel,” Hodes said while walking to a quick lunch, after which he headed out for a bus tour. “As someone who follows the issue for many years, I was especially interested in coming here.”
On a hot Tuesday morning, 18 Democrats — most of them members of the 2006 freshman class — mounted a tour bus on their way to Ramallah for a meeting with the new Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad. Dressed in khakis and sport jackets — the preferred attire for an adventure in the Levant — Democratic members of Congress returned from their trip to the Palestinian territories with a clear sense of excitement over the new Palestinian leadership.
“I think that the leadership of Mr. Abbas and Mr. Fayyad gives reason for hope,” said House majority leader Steny Hoyer, who led the Democratic delegation. “We are hopeful that history proves that we have come to a time where the leadership of the Palestinian people has determined that terrorism is not acceptable as a policy.”
The high spirits among the Democrats stood in contrast to conclusions reached by some Republican congressmen, who visited the region a week earlier. House deputy minority whip Eric Cantor became the first American lawmaker to criticize Fayyad after learning that the Palestinian leadership may have provided assistance to Hamas members. Cantor wrote a letter saying that he would warn other American lawmakers that talks with the Palestinian government “offer little value.”
The congressional trips to Israel were organized and sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, an offshoot of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that focuses on taking political leaders and staff members on educational visits to Israel. The separate group was formed in order to maintain the separation between Aipac’s lobbying operation and the educational foundation that sends lawmakers on all-expense-paid tours.
In organizing the visits, AIEF built two itineraries that were almost identical, yet totally separate for members of the two parties. Both delegations roamed Israel and the Palestinian territories in parallel tours, with one group ending its visit a day before the other one landed.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sent last-minute cancellation notices to both the Republican and the Democratic delegations that came to Ramallah. In the first case, he left for consultations abroad; regarding the Democrats, he begged out with the flu. Abbas’s absence turned over the spotlight to Fayyad, who enjoys significant popularity among American lawmakers and policy officials because of his moderate political views and his efforts to install good governance, accountability and transparency in the Palestinian Authority.
Fayyad, who became second in the P.A. hierarchy after the fallout between Fatah and Hamas, managed to charm lawmakers from both parties who visited him in Ramallah. Democratic and Republican staff members said that Fayyad came across as a straight talking, down-to-earth partner, a stark contrast to the experience that some of the veteran lawmakers have had with former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat.
“He’s honest; he’s not a politician,” Hoyer told the Forward after the meeting.
While the delegations may have covered similar territory, they did not draw similar conclusions on the impending policy matters. On the Israel-Palestinian peace process, it was the Democrats who appeared to be closer to the Israeli government. According to attending government sources, in meetings with the lawmakers, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni stressed the need to support the Abbas government and to strengthen Fatah.
Majority leader Hoyer went so far as to publicly state that “the United States has never opposed the Palestinian people.” He hinted that if the P.A. does curb terrorism, Congress will be willing to consider further financial aid to the Palestinians.
Cantor, who led the Republican delegation, came to very different conclusions a week earlier. A day after meeting with Fayyad, Cantor learned that the P.A. has decided to provide financial assistance to Hamas members.
“You can imagine my shock and disappointment,” he said to Abbas in an angrily worded letter. “This came less than 24 hours after you looked me and several other U.S. Congressmen in the eye and vowed that your government would not seek rapprochement with Hamas.”
Democratic lawmakers raised Cantor’s complaints with Fayyad, as well as with Israeli and American officials, and heard, according to Hoyer, a unanimous agreement that the payment to Hamas members was merely a bureaucratic mistake that was rectified within less than an hour.
“I believe there is no policy by the Palestinian government to support Hamas,” Hoyer said.
On the issue of the new White House arms proposal, it was the Republicans who were on the same page as the Israeli government. The deal would send $20 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, and Olmert has declared that Israel does not view it as a threat.
The Israeli support for selling arms to Saudi Arabia has caused confusion among Jewish groups. Only two organizations have made public statements on the issue: From the right, the Orthodox Union announced it opposes the deal because of the Saudis’ failure to cooperate with the United States on a wide array of issues. On the left, Americans for Peace Now expressed opposition to the deal because it escalates the Middle East arms race. Mainstream Jewish groups have remained silent on this issue.
In Congress, it has been Republicans who have been supportive of the Bush administration plan. Congressional Democrats, on the other hand, have not yet adopted an agreed-upon policy in regard to the arms deal, and have presented a number of different fronts. In Jerusalem, Hoyer tried to remain vague, but Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley said, “I don’t trust the Saudis.” Berkley, who wrote a letter to President Bush demanding that the deal be called off, told the Forward that the Saudi leaders are “deceitful” and “the biggest supporters of terrorism.”
The debate over the Saudi arms deal remained the single issue dividing congressional Democrats on their visit.
On the Israeli-Palestinian front, the members adopted a cautiously optimistic line, similar to that now being advocated by Israeli leaders.
“I think there is hope,” said Hodes, president of the Democratic freshman class, while stressing that “it is very important to temper optimism with reality and practicality.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman