U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-District 8) traveled to Israel a few weeks ago with high expectations.
The trip, which included visits with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Palestinian Authority counterpart, Rami Hamdallah, as well as meetings with military personnel, from generals of the Israel Defense Forces to rank-and-file soldiers, exceeded those expectations.
“It was the most educational trip I’ve ever been on,” said Fitzpatrick, who took office in January. “You learn on every trip you’re on, but I learned more on this trip about foreign affairs, about Israel in particular, about coalition government, about national security threats, about border security and about history. When you think of Israel and particularly Jerusalem, it’s ground zero for humanity. I was just in awe being there.”
The annual trip for congressmen, which ran from Aug. 6 to 14, was sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation. According to Fitzpatrick, whose district encompasses all of Bucks County and a section of upper Montgomery County, about 35 people made the journey, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
Politics were not discussed.
“It’s a bipartisan trip purely for us to learn about Israel and the threats they face, because I can tell you there’s no other way to understand it until you’re there,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’m on the Foreign Affairs Committee and the subcommittee that covers North Africa and the Middle East, including Israel.
“It’s our responsibility to have a firm understanding of everything going on in the Middle East. You understand some beforehand, but until you’re there — and everyone said the same thing — going to the Golan Heights, being on the Syrian and Lebanese borders, hearing from military generals in the IDF, from government leaders as well as historians, there’s no replacing that. There’s nothing you can study here in the U.S. that gives you the kind of impression you gain from being on the ground in that part of the world.”
The 45-minute discussion with Netanyahu, prior to which Fitzpatrick submitted questions in part based on suggestions from rabbis in his constituency, drove home the point that Israel will do whatever it takes to survive. While that was expected, Fitzpatrick was surprised to hear what Netanyahu considers his biggest threat.
“What the prime minister made very clear to us was that Iran and the Iranian influence through its proxies like Hezbollah pose an existential threat to Israel and to the entire region,” said Fitzpatrick, whose trip included stops in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, Tiberias, Masada and Ramallah. “It’s his belief that Iran has a long-term, well thought-out strategy for regional and global dominance. He’ll do anything he can to counter that in any regional conflict.”
As a former FBI agent who frequently dealt with issues of terrorism and counter-intelligence and worked on Operation Iraqi Freedom as well as al-Qaida investigations, Fitzpatrick was particularly invested in learning some of Israel’s methods.
And when Fitzpatrick challenged Hamdallah about benefits being paid to the families of suicide bombers, he refused to accept the explanation.
“Obviously, that’s of great cause for concern for members of Congress, because that’s not something we support,” said Fitzpatrick, who indicated that $363.6 million of the $3.1 billion in aid paid to Israel in 2017 will go to the Palestinian Authority. “The answer he gave was not satisfactory. It was really a non-answer.
“We’re going to convene the subcommittee when we get back on this topic and prepare a report. Depending on what we find out, [it] could take the form of legislation or it could come as a recommendation to the State Department on a policy change to foreign aid.”
But what might be the most remarkable thing about the experience was the consensus reached by both sides of the aisle regarding Israel.
“They’re our greatest ally in the region by far [and] the only functioning democracy in the region,” said Fitzpatrick, who sindicated that visiting the Western Wall was the trip’s most profound experience. “We could learn an awful lot from Israel on issues of border security, counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence and cybersecurity, all components to keeping a nation safe.
“My Democratic colleague, Anthony Brown from Maryland, said it best. He said he learned so much on that trip he has more questions now than when he got there.”