Off the diplomatic path

From Hebron to Ariel, US Republican lawmakers take rare drive across Green Line to see for themselves what life in W. Bank settlements is all about.

Randy Forbes with Netanyahu 311 (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
Randy Forbes with Netanyahu 311
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
From Hebron to Ariel, five Republican US Congressmen recently took a rare drive across the Green Line to see for themselves what life in West Bank settlements is all about.
They watched a dance performance, tasted wine, and stood on the hilltop overlooking Nablus, to get a view of Joseph’s Tomb.
RELATED:Congressman shows support for Israeli W. Bank sovereignty
Where the Palestinians see “occupation” and “illegal” Israeli activity, these proud supporters of the Jewish state saw biblical stones and newly built apartment buildings.
“Settlements is a misnomer. We are talking about cities, towns, families and communities,” US Representative Randy Forbes of Virginia explained as he spoke with The Jerusalem Post at a hotel in the capital at the end of the eight-day trip.
A delegation of Republican congressmen who strongly support Israel and stand behind many of its policies is hardly an unusual sight.
Like many who have come before, they shook hands with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and visited the Western Wall.
But in an unusual move, they veered from the well-worn diplomatic path, to see some of the spots at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Noam Arnon, spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron, said this was the first time he knew of that a delegation like this had ever come to see the Jewish sites in his city and to speak with residents there.
“They will now be strong and knowledgeable ambassadors for Israel, even more than our own,” said Naftali Bennett, the director-general of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, who spent time with the delegation.
Their fact-finding mission last week was kept under wraps until they left the country at the start of this week.
It was important to go beyond the media images of the country, Forbes said as he sat in a suit, with a view of the Temple Mount behind him.
Very few Americans even knew what the West Bank was, he said.
“When you talk about it, they think you mean the Western side of some river that is moving through the Middle East,” he said.
It was always important, he said, to see the geography of a place. But that was particularly true in Israel, given its small size. If there were a military attack, “you have seconds to respond, we have hours,” he said.
“It is a big difference, and it changes the way you think of security,” he said.
He said he didn’t want to dictate to Israel the terms of a two-state solution or what its borders should be. But any final-status agreement must guarantee Israel’s security.
“If Israel would ask,” he said, “I would say, not at the 1967 line."
“That would be a mistake,” Forbes said and added that he did not believe Israel could defend itself, if the pre-1967 lines became the border.
Israel should not compromise its security needs in an effort to jumpstart the peace talks with the Palestinians, he said.
“It may create long-term instability,” he warned.
Nor does he believe that the US should insist on a freeze of settlement activity.
While in Ariel, he said, he heard how the city had been harmed by the lack of construction.
Forbes was struck by the fact that Palestinians in the West Bank could build, while Jews struggled for permits.
He also had strong statements to make about Jerusalem. The US should move its embassy from Tel Aviv to the capital, Forbes said.
“We should not tell the people of Israel where to put their capital.
Once they have decided that Jerusalem should be their capital, I think it is important that our embassy should be in their capital and I would support that move,” he said.
His support for the Jewish state, which he visited for the first time in 2001, stretched back to his childhood, he explained.
As a college student, Forbes was so intrigued by Israel that he wrote his senior thesis on the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Already then, he said, he understood Israel’s significance to the Western world, as both a democratic nation in the Middle East and a strong American ally.
“My conclusion has only been solidified over the years,” he said.
Israel has strong support among Christian Americans like himself, said Forbes.
Christian Americans can be more supportive than many American Jews, he said.
He is touched by the land’s religious history.
“You can not walk on this land without thinking about the people who walked here 4,000 years ago,” he said.
But he was equally moved by modern-day Israel.
When they were in Ariel, they listened to a children’s choir. As they sang, he thought of the daily risks people take to live in Israel.
While in Israel last week, Forbes and the other members of his delegation – Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio, John Fleming of Louisiana, Doug Lamborn of Colorado and Louie Gohmert of Texas – also visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and a Palestinian refugee camp in that city.
But their main focus was learning about Israel. During the trip, which was organized by the America Israel Education Association, the congressmen toured the aerospace and defense industries, and met with top officials such as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.
Forbes would not divulge the content of his talks with the Israeli leaders, but he did give his position on a number of policy issues in the headlines.
He is among those Republicans who support freezing US funding to the Palestinian Authority as long as it continues to support incitement, particularly in educational material. It also needs to stop the portrayal of suicide bombers as martyrs, he said.
The PA needs to show proof, beyond words, “that they are not using those funds to create propaganda for terror activity and hatred toward Israel or any other nation.
“We can’t mandate that it be stopped, but we say we won’t fund it,” he said.
As long as this kind of indoctrination continues, “you will never have successful negotiations” between the PA and Israel, he said.
US financial support for the United Nations should also be reduced, Forbes said.
His position here has little to do with the Palestinian pursuit of statehood at the UN without negotiating with Israel.
The UN had to do a better job of being accountable for its spending, he said. “I want a full accounting of what we are giving and where those dollars are going.”
Turning to the issue of US President Barack Obama’s relationship to Israel, Forbes said the Democratic leader could do a better job.
“The president’s relationship as it has been expressed in gestures and in words toward Israel has not been the relationship that I would support,” said Forbes.
In light of the dangers facing Israel, particularly from Iran, “it is important that we leave no lack of clarity in our resolve to stand with Israel in its defense,” he said.
This is an issue that goes beyond assuring the Israeli public that the US stands behind it, he added.
“When you have a president who, whether intentionally or unintentionally succeeds in confusing that message over and over again, it is a dangerous place to be both for the US and for Israel and for peace throughout the world,” he said.
“That is why it is important that our president and our political leaders be very clear in defining our [foreign] relationships and the stand the US will take in certain situation,” he said.
Forbes spoke very clearly of the dangers to Israel, the US and the world of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The international community must unite to impose strong sanctions on Iran, such as targeting its central bank and prohibiting the export to Iran of refined petroleum products.
“We need a unified resolve on a worldwide basis when it comes to Iran,” he said. “Iran it is not an Israeli problem, or a US problem. It is a worldwide problem.”
When it comes to a military strike, the option should be on the table, but not talked about or spelled out.
“The military option needs to be on the table, but not discussed,” Forbes said.