trip talk

Seven Democratic lawmakers break down takeaways from trip to Israel

Lawmakers said that judicial reform, Hezbollah’s buildup on Israel’s northern border, Iran, the Abraham Accords and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were primary topics of discussion

(From left to right) House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Rep. Wiley Nickel (D-NC) and his wife Caroline

Rep. Wiley Nickel (D-NC)/Twitter

As Israel continues to grapple with internal division over judicial reform, rising Iran-backed terror threats on its borders and the prospect of expanding the Abraham Accords, a delegation of 26 House Democrats traveled to Israel earlier this month on a trip sponsored by the AIPAC-linked American Israel Education Foundation.

Upon their return, seven of those members — all but one of them House freshmen, some of whom were visiting Israel for the first time, and others visiting for the second time this year — spoke to Jewish Insider, sharing their impressions and takeaways from the trip and what they had learned.

The lawmakers described judicial reform as the top issue in Israel, and said they’d engaged in extensive conversations on the subject, but agreed that it is up to Israelis to resolve the issue. They largely shied away from expressing firm opinions on the topic, at a time when a growing number of progressive Democrats have been outspoken against the Netanyahu government’s attempts at an overhaul.

Lawmakers said they believed there was broad consensus in Israel around the need for some reforms to Israel’s judicial system. 

“The most significant issue — that is top of mind for most Israels — is judicial reform,” Rep. Rob Menendez (D-NJ) said. “We also heard from [Opposition Leader Yair] Lapid, and others who, while not part of this coalition, have stated publicly that they believe there is room for judicial reform. And so I am hopeful that there will be continuing conversations with all sides.”

Several lawmakers compared the ongoing turmoil over judicial reform to questions swirling around the U.S.’ own judiciary; many Democrats domestically argue that reforms to the U.S. Supreme Court are sorely needed.

Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI) said that, as a critic of Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, she “completely relate[s] to those who are in disagreement with a course and direction that their government is taking.” She added that she sees parallels between the power of far-right members of the Israeli coalition and the rising power of the far right in the U.S. and in Congress.

“Talking to young people who believe that the checks and balances system and the democracy of their country will be infringed on is something I have seen in our own country now,” Stevens continued. “Does that make it OK? That’s a question for Israelis to answer.”

Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-MI) said that there is space for U.S. officials “to speak from our own experience and what has worked and what has not.” But, she continued, the U.S. may not be in a place to judge Israeli democracy. “I think the United States could stand to reckon with the fact that we’ve got about a 30% confidence rating from the people of the United States of America, in our own judiciary,” she said.

Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-OH) indicated that the group had urged Israeli leaders to be mindful of the ongoing protests and seek room for negotiation.

“One of the comments we got was to ‘take a look at your judicial system. Wouldn’t you think that it should have reforms as well?’” Sykes recounted. “And the answer from [us] was, ‘Yes, there are things that we would reform.’ It’s not necessarily that reforms in and of themselves are bad. It just depends on what those reforms are.”

Multiple members mentioned a conversation they had with an Israeli family, some members of which had attended the protests, as particularly memorable. Sykes said that the family conveyed “a genuine love for the country and wanting it to succeed.”

“We are reminded that Israel is a democracy that allows people to have different views,” Rep. Don Davis (D-NC) said. “That is very much a part of a democratic process… Democracy is obviously running its course.”

Speaking with ordinary Israelis about the issue “just underscored how amazing Israel is [as] a very young democracy. They’re struggling with these issues, but they’re doing it in a democratic way,” Rep. Wiley Nickel (D-NC) said. “I think that the U.S. needs to let Israel make those decisions for themselves.”

Lawmakers indicated, based on their conversations, that they believed there was still hope for a consensus solution, despite the governing coalition having passed a plank of the judicial reform effort that limits the power of the Supreme Court to overrule decisions by the executive and legislative branches.

“I feel good that ultimately democracy will prevail,” Rep. Greg Landsman (D-OH) said. “And just like here in the United States, where we’re working through similar issues in the sense that we have very serious threats to our democracy… ultimately the majority will prevail, the majority of us who are not on the far left or the far right.”

The Democratic lawmakers agreed that the trip had given them a better appreciation for the security threats that Israel faces, with several saying they were especially alarmed by Hezbollah’s buildup of increasingly sophisticated missiles along Israel’s northern border in Lebanon.

“The issues on the northern border, Lebanon, Syria, they are more serious than I realized… It is urgent, it’s a daily issue,” Landsman said. “This could turn violent very quickly as it has in the past. And this time, they have the ability to do enormous damage.”

“Iran has really encircled this country with these proxy terror groups,” he continued.

Scholten said that the group personally saw Hezbollah operatives maneuvering along the border — an experience that brought home the gravity of the security threats Israel faces on a daily basis.

“It’s one thing to talk about these talking points from the comfort of an office in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “It is another thing to be standing there in the desert, looking over the border with a Hezbollah spy in the trees looking down at you and your group.”

A trip to a kibbutz near the Gaza border, in short range of rocket attacks from the Palestinian enclave, also resonated with several participants.

“In this particular kibbutz there was a person that had been memorialized — the person didn’t make it back [to a bomb shelter] in time,” Davis said. “To me to think that residents would have just a matter of seconds to get families, their children into a bomb shelter…it’s amazing to me.”

Menendez said that getting “that human connection was definitely a special part of the trip.”

“To talk to those folks and see firsthand their resiliency up close, to me, was something that really stuck out,” he said.

The lawmakers uniformly expressed support for Israel’s defense and concern about the threat from Iran.

“We have to acknowledge the fact that it is driven by the Iranian regime, and that as long as they continue to be a destabilizing force in the region, that’s a big part of the problem,” Menendez said. “We need to continue to be in close coordination with Israel on that front.”

But those asked about the issue steered clear of weighing in on the Biden administration’s recent deal to free hostages in Iran in exchange for billions in frozen Iranian funds — which Republicans have warned will free up additional funding for terrorists targeting Israel and the U.S.

“Often the administrations have extensive information, and I would like to believe that, based on information they had, that that was in the best interests of the American people,” Davis said.

The lawmakers expressed support for expanding the Abraham Accords, including to Saudi Arabia, as a potentially seismic development for the region. But lawmakers pressed on the issue largely avoided commenting on Saudi Arabia’s reported demands as part of the emerging trilateral normalization deal — some of which could prove problematic among U.S. lawmakers — in absence of a specific finalized deal.

“I think the devil’s in the details, but, you know, in a broader sense,  having a deal with Saudi Arabia could be a game changer for Israel and for the Middle East,” Nickel said.

Some also framed expanding the Accords as a potential catalyst for Israeli-Palestinian peace and for deterring Iran — an increasingly common refrain in Washington.

Landsman described the lack of a “legitimate or credible governing authority in the West Bank” capable of maintaining security as “the biggest obstacle” to peace.

“The Abraham Accords and these emerging partnerships with Gulf States — and hopefully the discussions with the Saudis bear similar fruit in terms of real partnership — that will be a pathway to peace,” he said. “Allowing these Gulf states to work with the Palestinians first in the West Bank, and then hopefully, ultimately in Gaza too, to establish that legitimate, credible governing authority and that can fundamentally get us… to a place where the West Bank, Gaza are secure.”

Sykes also said group members were “very concerned” about the expansion of settlements in Israel and their potential “hindrance” to the prospects of a two-state solution.

“We understand this is a challenge, and we get it,” Sykes said. She said the trip had increased her understanding of the situation as something of a “catch-22,” explaining that drawing down the Israeli presence in the West Bank, particularly in Israeli-controlled Area C, could pose security concerns and allow areas to fall to Hamas.

“There is a security concern about that. A legitimate concern,” she said. At the same time, “the settlements make it more difficult [for] the Palestinians to want to negotiate with Israelis.”

Stevens, who sits on the House select committee on China, said that Chinese encroachment across the region was also in discussion during the trip.

“We were… informed about those efforts and the need to take them seriously, as well as the benefits of the Abraham Accords,” Stevens said, and the need to “[strengthen] our relationships with allies and partners in the region.”

Some lawmakers said their visit to Yad Vashem had left a significant impact.

“The thing that stuck with me and will always stick with me is how the United States chose not to engage, and how that meant so many Jewish people were murdered at the hands of an evil, evil human being,” Sykes said. “As a Black person who does not have a homeland because my ancestors were ripped from their place and stripped of their culture and identity, I celebrate the fact that Israeli and Jewish people have that, even if we don’t. But I am also just reminded how important it is for us to stand up for people.”

Nickel, the great-grandson of a Polish Jew who fled Europe prior to the Holocaust, said that legacy was top of mind throughout the trip.

“The whole week I was there, I continued to think about what he would think of the current state of affairs, and how amazingly proud and glad he would be that Israel still exists as a country 75 years later… and how you need to continue to fight antisemitism, wherever it rears its ugly head, so that this kind of thing can never happen again,” Nickel said.

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