If there’s one thing Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) learned during a weeklong trip to Israel, it’s that nothing in the region, in particular peace talks, is simple.
“I don’t think anybody was Pollyannaish about thinking it’s going to be easy,” Kilmer told JTNews.
Kilmer was part of a 37-member U.S. congressional democratic delegation in Israel in August to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, receive high-level military and diplomatic briefings, and tour sensitive security zones, including the northern border with Lebanon, the Gaza border, the Golan Heights, and the Syrian and Jordanian borders.
The American Israel Education Foundation, the educational affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, sponsored the visit that allows lawmakers to learn about Middle East issues that influence U.S. policy. Kilmer, a former state legislator, began his first term this year in a district that encompasses the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas, Tacoma and parts of the South Sound, and nearly all of the islands in the Puget Sound. He is a Princeton University graduate and a University of Oxford Ph.D.
At the top of the list of issues to be discussed on his visit was the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
“There are very complicated areas of disagreement,” Kilmer said. Among other complex issues, “there’s an ongoing discussion about security, because if there is a two-state solution, how do you ensure Israel’s long term security? That is a challenging needle to thread.”
The group met with members of the Israeli government to discuss the importance of strengthening the long-established partnership between the U.S. and Israel as the U.S.‘s only reliable democratic ally in the Middle East.
Kilmer said he saw first-hand the threats that Israelis face “basically along every border.”
“That’s really, really important,” he said. “When you’re sitting there across from Gaza, there’s a reality of rockets from Hamas. When you’re up on the Lebanese border, there’s the reality of the presence of Hezbollah. These threats to Israel are very real.”
In addition to meetings with Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, and a negotiator on the Israeli side, they also went to Bethlehem, and finally to Ramallah in the West Bank, where Kilmer spoke with chief Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat, along with another negotiator in his party.
“The most positive thing to come out of all of the discussions is the degree to which there was appreciation for the role the United States was playing in trying to reignite the peace discussion,” noted Kilmer. “Erekat mentioned Secretary of State John Kerry by name numerous times and the very active role he’s playing.”
Kilmer said he was surprised by how “substantially developed” Ramallah was, saying he met Erekat in a “really upscale hotel.”
In March 2013, Kilmer was one of 338 cosponsors of H.R. 938, the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), “to strengthen the strategic alliance between the United States and Israel, and for other purposes.”
The legislation reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to partnering with Israel in several areas including technology, homeland security, cyber-security, intelligence, energy, water, agriculture, alternative fuel technologies, an Israel visa waiver program, and military defense and deterrence.
“That strategic cooperation was a key element of the trip I went on,” Kilmer said. “We met with a group of young innovators and talked about trade relationships and our economic relationship and our nation’s military partnership. I also visited an Iron Dome battery.”
Iron Dome, Israel’s anti-missile defense technology, showed its effectiveness during the November 2012 Pillar of Defense operation, and most recently as last week in cross-border skirmishes with Syria.
When Kilmer met the families in the rocket-plagued border town of Sderot, located about a half of a mile from Gaza, and toured the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, it was the safety of his young daughters and the past plight of his 103-year-old Holocaust survivor grandmother back home that suddenly became very personal.
“I have two little girls,” said Kilmer, who is not Jewish. “I cannot imagine what that’s like. The children’s recreation center had to have its roof reinforced because of concerns about rocket fire from Gaza.”
One mother told Kilmer they don’t have post-traumatic stress disorder, but “constant traumatic stress.”
“Sitting and talking to the kids and the parents, that’s a very real experience that you don’t get from a policy briefing,” he said. “Not only do you see how an investment like [Iron Dome] provides protection, you see what it protects.”