A bipartisan delegation of women members of Congress is visiting Israel this week to underline that there is “no daylight” between the Democratic and Republican parties when it comes to ensuring the strength of US-Israel relations, and in supporting Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, the leader of the group said Thursday.
Speaking to The Times of Israel by phone as the delegation toured the country, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat of Florida, said the group had met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, and former chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and found it “heartwarming” to hear how similar they sounded about the imperative to enable Israelis and Palestinians to “live side by side in peace.”
Two other members of the delegation were also on the call — Martha Roby (a Republican of Alabama) and Angie Craig (a Democrat of Minnesota). The delegation also included Congresswomen Bonnie Watson Coleman, Brenda Lawrence, Mikie Sherrill and Susie Lee.
Asked about concerns in Israel that some high-profile members of the Democratic party have been loudly critical of Israel, and that three Democratic presidential candidates — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg — have talked of leveraging US military aid in order to compel Israel to change its policies on settlements and the Palestinians, Wasserman Schultz replied: “Quite the contrary: The message given to us, particularly by Prime Minister Netanyahu, is that he does not perceive or believe that there is any erosion of support.”
She added that there was an awareness in Israel that “there are minor differences of opinion among individual leaders,” but that Jerusalem recognizes that the wider picture is one of “overwhelming support [for Israel] from both parties.” (Craig’s fellow Minnesota Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was denied entry to Israel this summer, along with Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat of Michigan, on a tour organized by an anti-Israel Palestinian group, over their support for boycotts of Israel. Omar has urged a halt to US aid to Israel until it grants Palestinians “full rights,” while Tlaib has likened Israel to apartheid South Africa and backed a one-state formula to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict that would essentially spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state.)
“I was particularly glad to hear the prime minister saying this,” said Wasserman Schultz, a former head of the Democratic National Committee, noting that he did so in his own remarks rather than in response to a question. “I’ve always heard him say this. He has emphasized this going back to the Obama [era].”
Stressed Wasserman Schultz: “There is no daylight between the parties. Both support Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.” Theirs was a bipartisan delegation, she said, precisely “to demonstrate there is no daylight between the two US parties on the strength of the US-Israel relationship.”
She said a key focus of the trip was to bring an all-women group “to look at security and other challenges through a distinctly women’s lens.” To that end, the delegation met with female leaders in numerous fields, including journalists, startup heads and Knesset members from both Likud and Blue and White.
Their talks with Netanyahu, Gantz and Erekat highlighted the priority to bring the sides back to the table for “direct bilateral negotiations,” she said.
Asked whether those conversations had yielded any grounds for optimism, she said: “We were all pleasantly surprised… It was heartwarming to hear how similar they sounded.”
She said all three indicated they recognize “that there is no other option” other than “two peoples living side by side in peace. They certainly disagree on the details,” she said, but their message was broadly similar. And since the goals are similar, she concluded “the details are very challenging but achievable.”
Asked whether Netanyahu or Gantz had specified support in principle for Palestinian statehood, she said the conversations were off-the-record, and while she was comfortable discussing the broad message, it would be inappropriate to go into the specifics.
The delegation’s agenda also included touring parts of the northern border area, where Israeli political and military leaders have lately expressed concerns about the prospect of Iranian or Iranian-backed aggression against Israel.
Wasserman Schultz preferred not to comment on Israeli concerns about the US administration reducing its military deployment in Syria, and perceptions that it is disengaging. She stressed, however, that any threat to Israel’s security undermines the prospects of a return to, and progress in, bilateral negotiations.