[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]
From June 6-10, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) was part of a congressional delegation that visited Israel on a trip organized by J Street. Other members of the delegation were Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Sam Farr (D-CA), Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA).
The delegation spent part of its time learning about security in Israel. They visited S’derot, the Israeli town near the Gaza border that has frequently been the target of Hamas rocket attacks. They were briefed on the Iron Dome, an anti-rocket defense system that recently shot down an incoming rocket before it could land in a populated area. And they also saw the security set-up at the Erez Crossing between Israel and Gaza.
“The situation in S’derot was fascinating,” Yarmuth said, “because on the one hand, you have this incredibly effective self defense system that they used once in real life and had 100 percent success record. On the other hand, you have a situation in which Hamas has not been lobbing rockets into S’derot.” They’ve been “practicing” – firing rockets into the fields, but not targeting populated areas. “The Iron Dome is set and ready to go,” he added, but it will only be used when there is a threat to the population.
“I came away from the trip with a much better understanding of the fear that permeates the country,” he said. “I understand the justification for it. On the other hand, most people want an ideal solution, which will never happen.
“Israel needs to compromise in a way a lot of American Jews don’t want them to” if they have any hope of achieving peace, Yarmuth explained. The country faces “two existential threats – one military and one demographic.
“The demographic threat cannot be dealt with,” he continued, “so it’s critical that we get to a negotiated settlement and a two-state solution.” Yarmuth added that it is also important that “Israel doesn’t do things in the meantime that make that impossible.”
Yarmuth described Israel’s relationship with the U.S. as “extremely strong” and pointed to the reception Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu received in Congress during his recent visit as evidence.
“I think Netanyahu is using that speech as evidence of unequivocal support for his policies, which I think is unfortunate,” Yarmuth said. While there is widespread support for Israel, the congressman does not believe there is similar support for all of Netanyahu’s policies.
To illustrate his point, he pointed to the recent incident on the Syrian border where Syrian demonstrators charged the border with Israel in the Golan Heights and some were killed as Israelis tried to protect the border. “We said, no matter what you use as a rationale, that is not going to play well in the U.S. where unarmed people are shot.”
Yarmuth said the Israelis are very aware of that and are “moving rapidly to find nonlethal means of repelling demonstrators. They know that every action they take has the potential to turn off some of the American public.”
With respect to U.S. policy toward Israel, Yarmuth thinks, “we are doing the right thing. … About a year ago, all Jewish members met with the president. We spent an hour and 45 minutes with the president and he went through exactly what his approach was, and I think everybody in the room, from the strongest support of Netanyahu to the weakest among the Jewish members came out of there saying he knows what he’s doing.
“What he said was we can’t impose a solution on either side,” Yarmuth reported that President Obama said. “I have to create enough political space for both the Israeli leadership and the Palestinian leadership to bring their people into whatever agreement they can reach.”
That said, Yarmuth found that people throughout the region – Israelis, Egyptians and Palestinians – think the president has to be more engaged in the peace process. Without Obama’s direct involvement, both the Israelis and Palestinians will find reasons not to talk.
The delegation also talked with military and political leaders in Egypt. “Everyone of them made it their first point to say, … we have no intention of changing our commitment or lessening our commitment to the agreements we have with Israel.”
That said, it was still clear that the Egyptians are on the side of the Palestinians.
With respect to the Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Egypt, Yarmuth said that both the Egyptians and the Israelis agree that Western reporting of the changes was inaccurate and misleading. The media reported the opening of the Rafah Crossing as a significant policy change that would lead to the free influx of dangerous material into Gaza.
In reality, the congressman explained, the crossing was already open six hours a day and now it is open eight hours a day and some Saturday hours were added.
While Egypt’s political situation is still unsettled, Yarmuth reported that the Egyptians have a clear understanding that they now have an “opportunity to reassert Egyptian stature in the world and to be a positive player in achieving peace in the Middle East.” He also said they’re excited about the prospect of being the largest democracy in the region and they recognize their potential for economic development and regional leadership.
The delegation also met with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Yarmuth described Fayyad as “a fascinating, very candid man. He’s very sophisticated and very committed to building a better society and a land for his people.” The congressman said he visited Ramallah in 2007 and there was nothing there. In stark contrast, today it is a thriving community with new buildings, hospitals, hotels and commercial activity on the street. In the last three years, 200 schools have been built. Fayyad told the Americans, “I’m going to make the West Bank resemble a nation whether it is recognized as a nation or not so that it will be respected as a nation. It will do things nations do.”
With respect to the Palestinian’s pursuit of recognition as a state by the United Nations, Yarmuth reported that Fayyad disagrees with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Fayyad is pushing the Palestinian leadership to give up on the settlement argument and to return to the negotiating table.
Yarmuth continued, Fayyad said, “The one thing we can’t give up on is the latest Netanyahu demand that we have to recognize a Jewish state in Israel. That would be an admission to our people that we have no interest in this area, and besides that, it doesn’t make any difference.” If Israel wants to declare itself a Jewish state, it can do so.
Just about everything else is on the table, Fayyad contends.
Yarmuth left hopeful for the chances of peace, but he said there is fear on both sides that Netanyahu doesn’t want to go to the table.Yarmuth also observed that the Fatah reconciliation with Hamas may not be a stumbling block. While Hamas’ objective of destroying Israel hasn’t changed, “their lifeline runs through Syria.”
Yarmuth speculated that they joined Fatah because they’re afraid they may be cut off if things go wrong in Syria. “Hamas may not be in a negotiating position very long,” he said.
J Street, the organizer of this trip, describes itself as the political home of pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.