The U.S. House of Representatives can’t agree with the U.S. Senate on immigration, sequestration and a farm bill. The Republican-controlled House just voted to repeal Obamacare for the 40th time. And only 10 percent of Americans give Congress high marks.

And what does Congress do about all this?

It’s on a five-week recess, allowing Hawaii Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Tulsi Gabbard to visit Israel for sightseeing and yoga.

OK, I exaggerate, but only a little.

Hanabusa and Gabbard were part of a 37-member House delegation that traveled to Israel and the West Bank earlier this month, a trip that concluded Sunday.

Led by House Minority Whip U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the delegation met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Net­an­yahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and new Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, among other officials.

The trip was sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charitable organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, a powerful pro-Israel lobby.


U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and other lawmakers meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu.

I’m not going to talk much about AIPAC here, although it is important to understand that the organization is controversial (check out its Wikipedia entry) and attracts zealous supporters and critics.1

I’m also not going to take a position on the longstanding, seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, the one that Secretary of State John Kerry has spent months trying to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.

What I am wondering, however, is why Hanabusa and Gabbard felt it was necessary to make the trip. Isn’t Israel in the Mediterranean, and not the Pacific? Haven’t we embraced the American “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region?

And, if Hanabusa and Gabbard feel they have to travel to the Middle East, shouldn’t they be focused on more pressing crises like Syria and Egypt, which are burning out of control? Or Iraq, which suffers near-daily suicide bombings, or Iran, where a new leader is making overtures to the West? Or Yemen, a target of U.S. drones?

The trip — junket, one might say — reportedly was planned long in advance; it happened to come as the U.S. State Department issued travel warnings to Americans about a possible al-Qaida attack and closed embassies and consulates in the region.

Kerry himself has come under criticism for spending so much energy on Israel and the Palestinians, even though it is arguably not the most important concern at present … unless Israel follows through on threats to strike Iranian nuclear facilities.

‘Extremely Enlightening’

Hanabusa and Gabbard feel the trip was worth their while.

“During a historic time in the region, I’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand the unique and complex challenges that exist between Israel and Palestine, including the threat of a nuclear Iran,” Gabbard said in a statement to Civil Beat Monday. “In my meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Chief Palestinian peace negotiator Dr. Saeb Erekat, I gained valuable insights from hearing their perspectives and optimism as they embark on this new round of peace talks. Throughout the past week, I met with families, young people, children, and entrepreneurs from both Israel and Palestine. I was truly inspired by their resilience and hope, even in the face of constant threats.”


U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard meeting with Palestinian and Israeli high school students.

Gabbard continued: “I was also grateful to hear from many leaders of the deep appreciation, friendship and aloha that Israel has for Senator Inouye and his strong support for the Iron Dome, which has saved many lives. His work and friendship was greatly appreciated in the region, and many Israeli leaders expressed sincerely how deeply he is missed.”

Hanabusa made similar but more detailed arguments.

She said in an email statement Monday, “It was extremely enlightening seeing the situation on the ground in Israel and Palestine. … There is a real desire for peace on both sides. It was eye-opening to learn that 65–70 percent of people on both sides support the two-state solution as the pathway to peace, but the same percentages believe the other side is not serious about negotiating. However, both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Dr. Erekat sang the praises of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and there is a real sense that there is a chance for progress. Both sides have committed to seven months of peace talks, which to me shows a high level of hope and commitment.”

Yoga at the Sea of Galilee

International travel is part of a Congress member’s job description.

When Hanabusa traveled to Japan earlier this summer, it made sense, given Hawaii’s historical ties and geopolitical location. When Gabbard traveled to Afghanistan in April, it made sense, given her military service in Iraq and Kuwait and stated desire to have the U.S. withdraw more quickly from Afghanistan.


Sunrise on the Sea of Galilee by Rep. Gabbard.

But American policy toward Israel is not going to change anytime soon, if ever, largely because of America’s deep religious, historical and political ties. Let’s be clear: AIPAC invited Hawaii’s reps in hopes that they will support its mission statement, which includes this goal:

AIPAC urges all members of Congress to support Israel through foreign aid, government partnerships, joint anti-terrorism efforts and the promotion of a negotiated two-state solution — a Jewish state of Israel and a demilitarized Palestinian state.

One need not be a Christian, Muslim or Jew to feel the mana of the Holy Land. Politics aside, Hanabusa, a Buddhist, and Gabbard, a Hindu, appeared moved by the experience, if their Twitter feeds are any indication. (View them at @TulsiGabbard, @RepHanabusa and @ColleenHanabusa.)

The visit did entail lots of sightseeing, including visits to Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and listening to afternoon prayers on the last day of Ramadan in the Old City of Jerusalem. Hanabusa wrote the names of relatives and friends who recently passed away on a piece of paper and stuffed it into the cracks of the Western Wall. On her last day in Israel, Gabbard tweeted out an Instagram photo of what appears to be the congresswoman doing yoga at sunrise on the Sea of Galilee. And Hanabusa told Civil Beat the delegation also visited Ramallah and Gaza.

Both representatives also tweeted about the late Daniel K. Inouye, a strong ally is Israel during his many years in Washington:

“Had a nice talk with PM @netanyahu He said #Israel is forever grateful for what @Daniel_Inouye did for the country and its people,” Hanabusa tweeted on Aug. 7.
“Just before we met with Israel’s President Shimon Peres; he had great praise for Sen Inouye, and wise,” tweeted Gabbard the same day.

Those tweets would no doubt please AIPAC.

Hanabusa seems aware of the politics involved.

“Having now been to Israel and seen first-hand the area’s complicated geography and politics, I believe I’ll have a more complete understanding of the issues that come before Congress,” she said in her email. “I definitely have a better understanding than what would come from seeing the region entirely through the eyes of U.S. media reports or interest group briefings. That experience could affect my votes; we’ll see how when individual issues arise.”

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