Two U.S. congressmen were on a whirlwind visit through Israel this week. Visiting the nation from top to bottom, east to west, meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, retired generals, visiting a local winery, high tech company, energy experts and shell-shocked victims of terror, Cong. Dennis Ross of Florida (R-15) and Cong. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina (R-9) made the most of their week-long trip. (Cong. Dennis Ross is not the man by the same name who worked in the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, or under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. ed.)
The Jewish Press was present at the very first stop of their trip on Monday morning. The congressmen came right from the all-night flight which landed in Tel Aviv to the beautiful Gush winery at the Gush Etzion junction.
During an hour-long breakfast meeting at the winery’s restaurant with local government officials and representatives of Gush Etzion, a cluster of Jewish communities south of Jerusalem, the topics were exactly as expected: peace and terrorism – how to have more of the former and less of the latter.
Mayor Davidi Perl explained that in the Gush Etzion area there are 80,000 Jewish residents and approximately 30,000 Arab residents. He said “everyone wants to live quietly, in peace, we have good relations with our neighbors, the problem is the leadership.”
Cong. Ross said that it seemed to him, “economic opportunity is the best weapon to achieve peaceful relations, without Israel’s economic infrastructure, the Arab neighbors don’t have a future.”
Bob Lang, the head of the Efrat Religious Council responded: “Forty years ago, before the so-called Oslo peace, we were living in peace with our neighbors. We all could and did shop in Bethlehem,” and Mayor Perl added that when he was a child, his school bus driver was an Arab. His parents never thought twice about putting him on the bus with an Arab driver.
Cong. Ross wanted to know what happened. “You are saying you used to have peaceful co-existence.” Lang piped up immediately: “the PLO was brought here and the Oslo Accords ended that peaceful co-existence. Now our cooperation has to be kept under the table.”
“We missed the opportunity to get involved and play a useful role in the Arab Spring,” Ross told the gathering of about 15. “The Muslim Brotherhood moved in to fill that void while we sat idly by. That kind of ‘neutrality’ is almost like we became isolationists,” he continued, “and the frustration by many of us in Congress is overwhelming.”
Cong. Pittenger added that he and others have met with Arab leaders in the region, and “the paradox is that they get it,” he said, telling the assembled Israelis “you are not alone.”
After the Congressmen left the winery, they went on to visit Hebron, the burial place of the patriarch and the matriarchs. They later met for a security briefing with a retired Israel Defense Forces general, stopped at an energy plant in Ashkelon, and visited a site of one of the Iron Dome batteries, the premier missile defense system which saved so many Israeli lives during recent conflicts.
The congressmen went up on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and visited many of the capital’s neighborhoods. They had a helicopter ride over Israel to see the topography and the security strengths and vulnerabilities. They visited the borders with Lebanon and Syria and stopped in the town of Sderot, on the border with Gaza.