The sight of a fluttering Syrian flag just across Israel’s border on the Golan
Heights on Sunday underscored for visiting United States Congressman Joseph
Kennedy (D-MA) how important security is for a small country like Israel with
During his five-day visit as part of a 36-member
congressional delegation led by US Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), he also
visited the Gaza border in the South, as well as the Lebanese border in the
North, near the Golan Heights.
The history of the Jewish people, Israel’s
situation and that of the region is complicated and nuanced, Kennedy told The
Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview.
But within that complexity, one
simple point stood out, he said.
“This is a nation that is asking for
nothing more than the ability to be recognized and for people to acknowledge
their right to exist,” Kennedy said.
“That is not to much to ask,” he
His visit marked the second time the fledgling representative has
visited Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Kennedy came on a private
trip prior to his election to Congress in November 2012, as the representative
for the 4th District in Massachusetts, a seat previously held for 32 years by
veteran politician Barney Frank.
He is the third generation in his family
to work on Capitol Hill. His grandfather Robert Kennedy, the brother of former
US president John F. Kennedy, was a senator from New York. His father, also
named Joseph, was a representative for the 8th District in
On a personal level, Kennedy said, he connected to Israel
as the land of the Bible and the place where Jesus walked. It was amazing, he
said, to visit sites he grew up reading about in Church.
As a member of
the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the representative of a district with
a heavy Jewish constituency, Israel and the Middle East also play an important
role for Kennedy politically.
Among the issues he played close attention
to before this visit is Iran’s nuclear program. At the end of July, he was among
those who supported a bill in the House of Representatives for additional
sanctions against Iran.
When he spoke with the Post on Wednesday in
Jerusalem at the start of his trip, he explained that a nuclear Iran would
generate a regional nuclear arms race that could include countries such as Saudi
Arabia, Egypt and Iraq precisely at a time of profound instability in the
“Adding nuclear weapons to the mix,” he said, “does not make the
challenges [of this region] any easier.”
He added, “The best measure is
He said that he understood why Israel was concerned, in
light of Iran’s repeated existential threats against it.
But he said that
Israel could trust US President Barack Obama on Iran. The president has
repeatedly made a commitment to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,
He added that the Congress was also committed to halt
Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
“I think you have seen a commitment by
members of the congress that recognize [that] a nuclear-armed Iran in the most
volatile region of the world is not going to make the world a more peaceful
place,” Kennedy said.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in
June and took office on August 3, presented a renewed opportunity for a
diplomatic solution, Kennedy said.
But he added that he was mindful of
the fact that Rouhani was still responsible to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah
“The supreme leader is still the supreme leader. Rouhani was
allowed to run by the supreme leader and he has continued to pursue a nuclear
[weapons] program,” Kennedy said.
If the new Iranian regime would commit
to peace, it would find a willing partner in the US, he said.
But if it
continues with its policy of proliferation and with threats to eradicate the
State of Israel, Kennedy said, “then that it is not any sort of change at
Turning to the renewed peace process, facilitated by US Secretary
of State John Kerry, Kennedy said he was hopeful that progress could be
“I do not think anyone has any illusions about the difficult task
ahead,” Kennedy said. But in order to move forward, both Israeli and Palestinian
leaders need to be talking to each other, he said.
“No one doubts the
challenge of trying to achieve a long-lasting peace in the long run,” Kennedy
“Hopefully, we will build to a place where that is possible...
because I do believe that is what both peoples want,” Kennedy said.
added that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was important for regional
“It won’t solve every problem, but certainly if we are able to
make real progress with this conflict, it will have a stabilizing effect [on the
region],” Kennedy said.