AS an old folk song says, reading the news ain’t like being there.
Colorado Congresswoman Betsy Markey found that to be true last month, upon the completion of her first ever trip to Israel.
For one thing, the Fourth District Democrat was overwhelmed by the sheer spirituality of the country, a reaction many visitors to Israel encounter on their first trip.
“It was very emotional,” Markey told the Intermountain Jewish News this week. “You realize the thousands of years of history the Jewish people have in Jerusalem. You can understand the biblical significance of the whole land of Israel.”
Not to mention her own spiritual roots. She did her best to visit as many Christian sites as her busy itinerary would allow.
“I was raised a Catholic,” she says simply, “and of course Jesus was a Jew. It was incredibly powerful — overwhelming.”
Markey, however, was struck by considerably more than Israel’s spiritual offerings. She came away from her Aug. 8-15 trip with a far keener understanding of the realities of life in the Middle East.
“I think virtually all Americans take for granted Israel’s right to exist,” she says emphatically, “but I don’t think you really understand that until you’re in Israel and you see how the Israelis have to defend that right to exist every single day.”
Markey says she now fully understands that Israel is “a beacon of democracy” in the region, and “is surrounded by many hostile countries who don’t readily accept Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist.”
“So, one of the things that I came back with is the determination that Israel is our lifelong friend, that we are always standing by Israel’s side and always defending her right to exist.”
Markey’s trip was an educational jaunt for American legislators, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation. It was a Democratic version of a similar trip for Republicans held a week earlier, in which Markey’s fellow Colorado freshman representative, Cong. Mike Coffman, participated.
Both trips featured meetings with such regional luminaries as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad.
The trip succeeded in its educational objectives, Markey indicates.
It challenged several of her preconceptions about Israel, she says, including the optimistic but simplistic notion that regional peace is not all that difficult to achieve.
“When we spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he talked about the need to build a peace,” Markey says, “that two sides can’t get in a room and have an agreement and expect it to last unless you build on that.”
Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders also made the point to the American legislators that any key foundation to building a stable peace will be based on economics.
“We have to do whatever we can to ensure that Israel and the Palestinian areas are prosperous,” she says. “If we can ensure security and prosperity in that entire region, that will lead to the peace process.”
Markey came away from her meetings convinced that both Netanyahu and Fayyad are “committed to building peace in the area and coming to a two state solution,” but she now has a better understanding of the complexities standing in the way.
One of them is Israel’s settlement policy — its insistence on allowing the “natural growth” of existing West Bank settlements and the Obama administration’s opposition to that policy.
“I don’t have a pro or a con on the settlements,” says Markey, adding that she remains unconvinced that the dispute constitutes the primary “obstacle to peace” between Israelis and Palestinians.
“What I gathered in talking to both sides is they can agree on the settlements issue, that they can work through it. It is going to take some work but that that is not the major stumbling block in the peace process.”
There are several formidable obstacles to peace at present, Markey says — the influence of Iran in the region, the lack of economic growth in Palestinian-administered territories, the disconnect between Fatah on the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.
“That’s a big stumbling block, even more so than the settlements,” she says. “How do you reconcile those two areas? They are not contiguous right now. We’ve got two areas that are both potentially Palestine that are separated geographically. I think that is something we’ll have to look at very closely in the peace process, and I’m not sure what the answer is.”
The main obstacle, in Markey’s opinion, is security.
Simply put, she sees no realistic prospect for a lasting peace until the Palestinians convince the Israelis that they are absolutely committed to a total cessation of hostilities.
“I think Fayyad has the right sentiments,” she says, “and we need to make sure that he has the credibility within the Palestinian Authority to really speak for them. But the fact is that the Palestinians need to be very, very clear that they recognize Israel’s right to exist.”
That point was driven home, Markey says, near the end of the trip when a Palestinian activist handed out literature to the visiting legislators. She was shocked to see that the literature included a map which omitted all mention of the State of Israel.
That, along with the presence of Palestinian textbooks that Markey describes as “anti-Semitic,” convinced her that accepting Israel as a reality is something that many Palestinians still find hard to do.
“It just goes to show you,” she says, “that we’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure that we can build a lasting peace.”
MARKEY was also made aware that not everyone in Israel is enthusiastic about America’s new president.
Recent polls have indicated that a majority of Israelis don’t believe that Barack Obama is a friend of Israel.
“I did pick that up from some Israelis, that they were disappointed in the president for saying that we need to put a halt to the settlements,” she acknowledges.
“I also talked to other Israelis and other Americans who believe that the president needs to come to the table as an honest broker without making up his mind on either side.”
Markey believes that Obama is doing precisely that.
“I think that’s what the president is trying to do. We have a chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, whose father was born in Jerusalem. He’s a staunch supporter of Israel.”
Obama’s much-debated “even-handed” approach to the Middle East is not an indication of any ill feeling toward Israel, Markey says, but an attempt to gain traction as a diplomatic broker.
“I believe the president wanted to come to the table looking like he’s impartial and making sure that he’s got the credibility to be a negotiator. In order to do that, he needs to be as impartial as possible.”
Markey says she’s not worried about Obama’s commitment to Israel, nor should Israelis be.
“In anything that the president has said and done thus far, he’s a strong supporter of Israel, and certainly the United States Congress is as well,” she says. “Israel has strong, strong support in the American government as a true ally and that will never waver.”
SHE feels strongly that Americans in general share the same commitment, even though their attention is presently focused much more heavily on domestic than international issues.
“I think people are focused on the economy because we are in a recession. I don’t think the Fourth District is different from any other place in the country in that regard. Whether or not something is in the minds of my constituents on a daily basis, it is a priority for this country.”
No amount of healthcare reform, stimulus spending or bank bailouts should keep Israel and the Middle East from being “foremost in our minds in Congress,” Markey says.
Which underlines why it was important to take her first trip to Israel.
“For me, not sitting on the Armed Services or Foreign Relations committees, it’s particularly important that I have the opportunity to go to Israel,” she says.
“Because I will be casting votes, with regard to Iran, with regard to foreign policy and foreign aid in the area, it’s important for me to see firsthand.”
There’s nothing like being there, Markey concludes, for putting things in clear perspective.
“The Fourth Congressional District is larger in area than the entire state of Israel,” she says.
“When I look at that and see the porous borders in Israel, it makes me realize that Israel does have a serious situation.
“It makes me more determined than ever that we have to fight to make sure that we have a safe and secure Israel.”