'US needs Congress to... understand the true narrative'

From Iron Dome to supply chains, US Christian group quietly shaping US-Israel ties

After bringing House leaders to the West Bank and securing missile defense funding, the Alabama-based USIEA sees Abraham Accords countries replacing China as pharma suppliers

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (Republican-Alabama) discussing opportunities between the Us and Israel with Heather Johnston and Ari Sacher in his office in Washington in 2021 (courtesy)
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (Republican-Alabama) discussing opportunities between the Us and Israel with Heather Johnston and Ari Sacher in his office in Washington in 2021 (courtesy)

Large, well-resourced organizations like the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC or the prominent evangelical CUFI usually come to mind when discussing the groups shaping the US-Israel relationship.

But a small, proudly faith-based organization headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, is increasingly influencing issues at the core of the US-Israel relationship.

Over the last decade, the United States-Israel Education Association has brought senior congressional leaders to Israeli settlements deep in the West Bank, and has worked with the same lawmakers to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in US funding for the Iron Dome anti-missile system and develop ties between Israeli and Palestinian business communities.

“USIEA’s trips to Israel provide participating legislators with in-depth understanding of the complexity of the issues facing Israel and ways in which our countries can work together,” wrote then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a 2014 letter to the organization. “In doing so, USIEA helps further strengthen the bonds we share.”

With its partners on Capitol Hill, USIEA is now setting its sights even higher, as it develops a strategic project that aims to position the Abraham Accords nations as an alternative to China for the US life sciences and pharmaceutical supply chain.

From Ariel to Arrow 3

Alabama native Heather Johnston met Ariel mayor Ron Nachman in 1997 while she was on a private visit to Israel along with her husband Bruce. The northern West Bank settlement was then in the process of absorbing thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants, nearly doubling its population.

The two hit it off immediately, and Johnston, who was running a Christian leadership ranch in the mountains of northern California, used her network to help Ariel handle the influx, which included buying computers for schools and creating a radio station in the city. They also initiated a student exchange, with high schoolers from Ariel spending time at Johnston’s JH Ranch, and the American students visiting Ariel for Hanukkah.

Those exchanges culminated in Johnston building a leadership center in Ariel modeled on her California ranch. Since 2010, the National Leadership Center has provided experiential training through “values in the spirit of biblical ethics” to over 65,000 participants including IDF soldiers, police, students, and corporate groups.

View of the Israeli settlement of Ariel, in the West Bank on July 2, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The more time she spent in Ariel and surrounding communities, the more Johnston realized that there was an entire dimension of Israel’s story, and its relationship with the Palestinians, that was not reaching decision-makers in the US. Congressional delegations, she noticed, were not visiting settlements like Ariel.

“You get to see a lot,” Johnston told The Times of Israel in a recent Zoom conversation. “You get to see building freezes come and go. And it was not hard to see that Congress was not going through the Jewish communities.”

“If the United States is going to broker a Middle East peace process, and be inside the conflict, it certainly needs Congress to be able to understand the true narrative, and that’s how we set out,” she explained.

AIPAC’s educational foundation leads tours for freshmen congressmen of both parties that have become a rite of passage for new legislators. Johnston came to an informal arrangement with AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr whereby the new USIEA delegations would focus on senior Congressional leaders.

They also have a different geographical focus. While AIPAC’s tours have recently featured conversations on settlements with figures like Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi and occasional trips deeper into the West Bank, the vast majority of time is spent inside the Green Line. With USIEA, US legislators reach communities like Hebron and Shiloh.

As it turned out, in 2011 new Republican House Speaker Eric Cantor was on the hunt for a trip to bring senior Congressional leaders back to Israel to dive into issues more deeply as a follow-up to existing delegations.

Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader, delivers an address titled ‘An America That Leads’ at the Virginia Military Institute, on February 17, 2014. (photo credit: Courtesy of House Majority Leader/JTA)

“He joined forces with me and populated tours,” Johnston said.

In November 2011, the newly created USIEA took its first delegation, which comprised five GOP congressmen, all chairmen of House Armed Services subcommittees. None of the legislators had previously been to the West Bank.

At the time, no US government official had been permitted by Israel to see the Iron Dome anti-missile system, which was declared operational in March of that year. According to Johnston, during the delegation’s meeting with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu she asked him to declassify the system.

“He agreed, and the next day we went out to see an Iron Dome installation and the members were absolutely flabbergasted,” she recalled. “They just could not believe it. And all I could think about was that verse of Isaiah, “’Foreigners will rebuild your walls, their kings will serve you.’”

The group traveled to a base outside of Ashkelon to see one of Israel’s Iron Dome batteries. They received a briefing by rocket scientist Ari Sacher, a lead engineer on Iron Dome at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, who delighted them with his informal style.

“It went over very, very well,” Sacher recalled. “I try to make it entertaining.”

One of the members, Doug Lamborn, was so enthralled that he asked Sacher for a model of Iron Dome for his office desk.

A soldier, standing near an Iron Dome battery in Ashkelon, observes a two-minute silence commemorating fallen soldiers and victims of terror during Memorial Day in 2011 (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)
A soldier, standing near an Iron Dome battery in Ashkelon, observes a two-minute silence commemorating fallen soldiers and victims of terror during Memorial Day in 2011 (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)

The congressmen returned to Washington, and along with 54 of their colleagues, laid out a plan to drastically increase US support for the deployment and development of Iron Dome. President Barack Obama had already asked Congress for $205 million worth of funding in the 2011 budget, and added another $70 million the next year.

Johnston and Sacher, who understood quickly that they saw eye-to-eye on many issues, began what would become a longstanding partnership. As the House members worked on their legislation, Johnston organized Iron Dome briefings by Sacher on Capitol Hill.

“I’ve seen many tours of Israel. This was head and shoulders the best tour,” Sacher recalled.

In May 2012, the legislators’ plan, along with the efforts by AIPAC, bore fruit with the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which included $680 million “for “procurement of additional batteries and interceptors, and for operations and sustainment expenses,” from fiscal years 2012 through 2015.

USIEA has been actively involved in educating members about other missile defense systems. Participants in the 2014 trip visited the medium-range David’s Sling system, and set to work on legislation to fund further development. In April 2015, a bill was introduced to the House authorizing $286 million for procurement, research and development of the system, which is designed to take down missiles from more than 180 miles away.

The 2017 delegation included Congressman Mac Thornberry (Republican of Texas), then chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, who after visiting the anti-ballistic missile Arrow 2 system, and became a dedicated supporter of the system.

The next tour, in 2019, had members view the Arrow 3 system from up close.

Archive: Former US National Security Advisor Susan Rice views the Arrow 2 intercepting missile launcher at the Palmachim Israeli Air Force base in central Israel during her visit to the country on May 9, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

Besides funding for continued R&D, an important outcome of the USIEA tours was funding for the July 2019 joint Israeli Missile Defense Organization and the US Missile Defense Agency test of Arrow 3 in Alaska, in order to test capabilities that could not be tested in Israel.

In all, USIEA has brought five delegations to Israel, with two recent tours canceled because of the COVID pandemic. The next trip is slated for this year.

A new paradigm

Beyond missile defense, USIEA delegations also toured the West Bank to develop an understanding of the economic potential of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in the disputed region.

“They were able to see and understand that Palestinians and Israelis were working together,” said Johnston. “They were seeing Jewish cities, not settlements, in other words, big cities, and were understanding the whole dynamic in a different kind of way. They saw Ariel University, they experienced Palestinians working in Israel in industrial parks. That was a new paradigm at the time.”

2019 Congressional Tour on the steps of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. In the photo (left to right): General Charles Krulak, Corene McMorris, Olivia Hnat Shields senior staffer to Rep. McMorris Rodgers, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Chad Carlough CfS for Rep. Byrne, Clarinda Roe, Rep. Phil Roe, Rep. Bradley Byrne, Rep. Ann Wagner, Ray Wagner, Heather Johnston, Julie Escue (USIEA Director of Tours), Ari Sacher, Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum (courtesy)

In 2019, Johnston took four GOP House members to Hebron, a Palestinian economic hub, for the first time to meet the local business community. They were hosted at the home of Sheikh Ashraf Jabari, a business leader who very publicly advocates Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation in defiance of the Palestinian Authority.

The organization also sought to convince legislators that the hundreds of millions of  US dollars being poured into the PA without proper oversight was being used to incite terrorism against Israelis and punish Palestinians who sought coexistence.

USIEA’s efforts dovetailed with those of the Trump administration, which revealed a $50 billion economic vision for the Palestinians in 2019 alongside its Peace to Prosperity conference in Bahrain.

Illustrative: In this June 25, 2019, photo released by Bahrain News Agency, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, fifth from left, and Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, sixth from left, listen to White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, standing, during the opening session of the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Manama, Bahrain (Bahrain News Agency via AP)

While the Trump plan was ostensibly a stage on the path to an eventual Palestinian state on the majority of the West Bank, for USIEA, economic prosperity for the Palestinians was a reason to maintain some form of Israeli control over the territory.

“The trips brought in a new understanding of why Judea and Samaria need to remain under the authority of Israel,” Johnston explained. “That the Palestinians prosper when they’re in business with Israel.”

Along with the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry, USIEA held the first Israel-Palestinian International Economic Forum in Jerusalem in February 2019, attended by Oklahoma Senator James Lankford and US ambassador David Friedman. Chamber of Commerce founders Jabari and Ariel-based entrepreneur Avi Zimmerman presented their vision of prosperity to over 500 participants.

The forum met again, virtually, in 2020.

The same year, Zimmerman and Jabari founded the Integrated Business Roundtable, which advocates for joint business development throughout the West Bank.

A year ago,  Congress approved the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, which allocated $250 million in funding over five years for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue programs and Palestinian business development.

According to Zimmerman, USIEA was instrumental in shaping that bill. “It reflects language that got into Congress only because of us. It reflects language that got into it because of a trip these people took four years ago to Ariel.”

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman addresses the Israeli-Palestinian International Economic Forum in Jerusalem on February 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The message is that the zero-sum narrative is a lie,”  Zimmerman continued. “What is good for the Palestinians is not bad for the Israelis, and what’s good for the Israelis is not bad for the Palestinians.”

In November, Johnston was appointed by Alabama Senator Richard Shelby to the MEPPA advisory board.

‘He looked like a drowned rat’

Though the organization never numbers more than 10 employees and board members, USIEA includes some fascinating figures. In addition to Zimmerman and Sacher, who took a temporary leave from Rafael in 2017 to serve as USIEA’s director of education, Auburn University men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl joined the board of directors in 2021.

Gen. Charles Krulak, a senior fellow at USIEA, served as the 31st Marine Corps Commandant in 1991-1995. His father, decorated Jewish Marine Corps general Victor Krulak, fell in love with a Christian woman and raised Charles as an Episcopalian.

“But I’ve always had a heart for the Jewish people and for Israel,” he told The Times of Israel.

As a young officer in Vietnam, Krulak found himself patrolling the swamps with an Israeli icon.

In 1966, looking to burnish his credentials to fulfill his ambition of becoming defense minister, Moshe Dayan flew to Vietnam to embed with US troops as a correspondent for the Maariv newspaper. He was assigned to Krulak’s company.

Moshe Dayan in Vietnam with Major J. Thomas Pearlman, Sr. (Unknown crew chief/public domain)

“I was just blown away by, one, his warmth and genuineness… and he had a lot of good things to say, and a lot of things that stuck with me,” Krulak recounted. “The way he could interact with those young troops was just amazing.”

And the junior officer got to witness the former IDF chief of staff in some compromising situations as well. On the second day of the patrol, the company was making its way on rocks across a stream, when Dayan slipped and tumbled into the water. “He looked like a drowned rat,” Krulak said with a laugh.

Eight years ago, while serving as president of Birmingham-Southern College, a Jewish friend in town called Krulak and suggested he meet with Johnston to discuss her new organization. The two sat for two hours, and by the end of it, Krulak was hooked.

“What she was doing with this tiny organization,” he recalled. “I thought to myself, if ever we’re going to make a difference in the relationship with Israel and the relationship with the Middle East, now’s the time.”

Gen. Charles Krulak (Public Domain)

Krulak thinks that USIEA is particularly effective because of its small size and agility. “You hear about AIPAC, you hear about all these other places, but all of a sudden in the background is an organization that doesn’t just talk, they get action taken.”

“At the end of each tour,” he explained, “we have to develop lanes of action the members are willing to participate in.”

He is convinced that the massive American investment in Iron Dome has paid off handsomely for both parties.

“It’s been a two-way street, because obviously it’s helped the State of Israel, but at times when we had difficulties with North Korea, we were looking at the ability of Iron Dome to help support our efforts in South Korea. A lot of things have come out of that one little interaction in November.”

Strategic near-shoring

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization is working on its most ambitious project yet – the “near-shoring” of America’s life science and pharmaceutical supply chain.

“It became painfully obvious during the pandemic that the Chinese were pretty much free to do what they wanted, and there were shortages of dozens of drugs,” Johnston said. “And now most of Congress understands we need to take our life sciences out of China, bring our life sciences back to the US.”

“The problem was pharma left the US for China for a reason. The reason was it became economically unfeasible to keep it in the US.”

USIEA sees an opportunity with Israeli and Emirati life science expertise and the low labor costs in Egypt and Jordan.

The Israeli drug company TEVA Pharmaceutical Industries, in Jerusalem, on August 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The efforts are still in their early stages, but “high-ranking officials in the relevant committees” are hard at work turning the vision into legislation, according to the organization. One major obstacle is the fact that the US Food and Drug Administration has international offices in Europe, India, Latin America, and, of course, China, but none in the Middle East or North Africa.

“We are trying to understand what kind of legislation Congress wants,” said Johnston, “trying to get a handle on what the potential is. Then they can determine what they want to do and how to do it.”

“Israel’s commitment to research in the life sciences sector has been fundamental to global health—through vaccine development, supply chain management and economic cooperation,” Congressman Henry Cuellar (Democrat of Texas) told The Times of Israel in a statement. “As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, I will continue to support organizations that help expedite our return to normalcy. Israel plays a leading role in this effort and I look forward to my continued work  and commitment to solutions with USIEA.”

The benefit of the doubt

Looking ahead at future of the US-Israel relationship in the post-Netanyahu era, Johnston is optimistic. She has known Bennett for a decade, working closely with him on her Ariel projects when he was education minister, and feels the time is right for his leadership.

“I like Naftali,” she said. “Obviously he’s filling big shoes taking Netanyahu’s place. But, it would have to be at some point in time where God said a new generation has to take the helm.”

Johnston also believes that ties will grow even closer under the Biden administration.  “They’re still there for Israel, and still working hard to make sure that the relationship continues to progress.”

Still, there are some obstacles she foresees, including actions by progressives in the House: “I think they’ll be seeking to do things that undermine the US-Israel relationship. They want to delegitimize Israel’s role in the world. We would be silly to act like they represent the Democratic Party, because they don’t.”

She also hopes that Israelis will drop widely held suspicions about the motives of Christians working to support Israel and Jews.

“If I could change one thing, it would be that they would understand that most Christian Zionists are focused on how to build the US-Israel relationship,  and that that’s a positive thing.

“The notion that you’re going to have a bunch of Christians come pouring into Israel to proselytize is a little far-flung,” she continued. “I think it would be great to give Christians the benefit of the doubt in this generation. They’re actually very pro-Israel, and they want to see the US-Israel relationship succeed.”

House Republican Whip Steve Scalise told The Times of Israel that he sees USIEA as critical to that effort.

“Now more than ever, Israel needs our support,” he said.  “As we are constantly reminded of the grave threats that surround Israel, I am grateful for organizations like the US-Israel Education Association, which tirelessly work to educate Members of Congress about the importance of the United States’ unshakeable alliance with Israel.”

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