Representative Joe Kennedy serves the 4th District of Massachusetts since being sworn in this past January. The Congressman sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee and is a member of the Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade; and Middle East and North Africa subcommittees. He spoke with The Media Line’s Michael Friedson upon completion of his second trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories within an 18-month time frame.
TML: Congressman, you’ve just returned from a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, your second one in a little more than a year, the last one was just prior to your election. So besides the law-making business, what’s your fascination with the region?
- Shelah on peace talks: PM took political risk
- Congressmen: Move US Embassy to Jerusalem
- Congress to debate visa exemption for Israelis
KENNEDY: It was an incredible week to spend with a number of my colleagues -- about 37 of us that were over in Israel for a week. The vast majority of the group was freshmen, and for most, it was their first trip to the region; some had been a number of times. The trip was led by (Rep.) Steny Hoyer (D—Md.), the minority Whip from Maryland; it’s his 13th trip over to Israel. Mr. Henry Waxman from California, I think he said it was his 30th trip, and there’s a number of others that have been over quite a bit, I’ve been over once before, about 18 months ago, and to be able to share that experience spending a full week literally throughout Israel from the border with Lebanon and Syria throughout the Golan Heights all the way down to Sderot and close to the Erez crossing was amazing; and then going in to, spending some time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; going to the West Bank and to Ramallah was a wonderful opportunity as well.
So, it’s an area I’ve long been interested in and certainly, as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, an area that commands attention, not just because of Judeo-strategic concerns and not just because of a very long-standing and strong relationship between the United States and Israel, but really for, I think, our economic future, as well. The economic ties between our countries, you see in Israel a nation that's been able to foster a culture of entrepreneurship; you go through parts of the country and it feels like I'm back in Silicon Valley; and this national sense of pride, this national sense of service, and to see how that cascades through society is really remarkable.
TML: I know that you sought out and met with Salam Fayyad when he was the prime minister; I believe you spoke on this particular trip with Rami Hamdallah who has replaced him; you've met the players, so where are you on the confidence scale regarding the Kerry-brokered talks?
KENNEDY: You know, we unfortunately were not able to meet with Hamdallah; but we did spend over an hour with (Palestinian chief negotiator) Dr. Saeb Erekat. I understand that (Palestinian Authority President) Mahmoud Abbas was overseas, and so Dr. Erekat was nice enough to race home to receive us in Ramallah. We spent about an hour and a half or so with him, and I think there were a couple of key takeaways, from my perspective anyway. One was how much both sides – (Israeli President Shimon) Mr. Peres, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Dr. Erekat -- had gone out of their way to praise the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry for his really tireless advocacy to get both sides to a negotiating table, to at least get everybody in the same room and around the same table. And both went out of their way to really commend him for those efforts and I think that's a hopeful sign to start. I don't think anybody has any doubts about the challenges going forward and that they are real, that they are emotional, and they are historical, and that these are some really engrained challenges and obstacles that both sides -- not just the political leaders, but that people -- have to be willing to really make a commitment in order to be able to achieve peace.
However, in our conversations with not just government officials, but everyday Israelis, and some of the conversations we had with Palestinians, I do think that there is recognition that this might be the best chance there is for a while. And that recognizing this is going to mean some hard decisions going forward. I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to release 104 prisoners is evidence of his commitment and the government’s commitment to this process; a pretty strong statement on his part that they are willing to do what it takes and really enters these negotiations in a good way.
TML: I certainly agree with your assessment, the tenacity of Secretary of State Kerry being recognized by the parties, but there are those over here who are accusing or suggesting that Sec-State Kerry is devoting too much time to the Israeli-Palestinian track when there are arguably more pressing avenues to consider such as Syria and Egypt.
KENNEDY: I think that the Secretary’s been tireless on a lot of fronts, and certainly he has made the Israeli and Palestinian peace process a priority. I think that it would be wrong to say he's been ignoring other challenges in the region as well. As I said, I'm a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee -- and also a member of the Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade; and Middle East and North Africa subcommittees. Both of those committees have been focusing very much on the region around Israel -- certainly Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt -- and as you dig into those issues you recognize very clearly that Secretary Kerry has been, and the State Department has been, intimately involved in really pushing the envelope and doing everything that they can in a number of these challenges.
Egypt and Syria are both very very challenging circumstances and I think we need to recognize that neither of these issues -- neither Egypt nor Syria -- is going to be resolved quickly even if (Syrian President Bashar) Al-Assad were to fall tomorrow. There is a long process of what happens next. Egypt, I think anyone that's been paying close attention recognizes that we are in the midst, that Egypt is in the midst of a transition, and that transition is going to be challenging and that transition is going to take time. The Egyptian people recognize that we are there to help them through this process, but the process has to be seen as and must be legitimate and must be their own.
TML: The next round of talks is hours away and yet Israel argues it wants no preconditions, they want to start with security issues; and the Palestinians have at least two red line issues and they don't want to start with anything but those. So, what do you think the Sec State is going to do to overcome that barrier?
KENNEDY: I think if you had asked the Israelis and Palestinians; you asked the Americans; you asked the international community six or seven months ago when Secretary Kerry was sworn in, if 6 months from that date we'd be sitting down at the King David Hotel with all parties around the table and trying to actually move forward on a peace process, people would have been surprised to say the least. I think that the fact that they're there shows some real progress; I think that obviously there are some real, serious, difficult challenges going forward and both sides have to have those positions heard, and they have to be met with some, at least some form of a receptive audience on the other side of the table. There has to be a real decision to want to get to a two-state solution on both sides; and recognizing that there's going to be some very difficult solutions that are made, decisions that are made. In our conversation -- we spent about an hour-and-a-half with Prime Minister Netanyahu -- he recognized that, and again, the prisoner release indicates that he understands how difficult some of these decisions are.
I read a copy of the press release that he gave out and the letter that came out afterwards, and it was clear how painful a decision that was for him, and how painful a decision it is for Israel. I think it's one thing that Americans have to recognize that when living in a country of compulsory involuntary (military) service, that the release of individuals who are in serving prison terms for killing of soldiers, that that's not to be taken lightly. And I think the prime minister made very very clear how difficult a decision that was. It has not been without criticism; he has been met with some pretty strong opposition to that decision. But I think he did it with the recognition that if both sides are going to be serious about making some tough decisions in order to reach a peace accord, that this is a show of good faith.
TML: Congressman Kennedy, there's a good story that doesn't get reported a lot here and it's private sector entrepreneurialism, particularly on the Palestinian side -- the Israeli side is well known for their high-tech successes and a lot of good investments to be made. We've seen even some of your own constituents here looking for investment opportunities. Did you get a grasp of the economic side while you were here?
KENNEDY: You know, it's a great point and it is something that I don't think gets highlighted quite enough, although maybe the one, or one of the places that it does, is back in my district where I am right now in Massachusetts, in Newtown Brookline, where there are very strong ties to the Israeli community. There was, I think, a piece that came out recently in one of the periodicals and newspapers in Israel highlighting the connection of Israelis coming to Boston and the greater Boston area, and certainly that's the trade that goes both ways. During one of the more meaningful nights I had last week, we were at a dinner in Jerusalem at a private home and at the table with me were two seventeen year old students, an Israeli boy and a Palestinian girl, who were in a program called MEE, that is a Middle East Education program that is sponsored by MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, which I actually just left, teaching Israelis and Palestinians, high school students, how to, basic skills for engineering and math, and everything from how to program, how to make their own apps for mobile phones.
Each of these students actually had their own app for an Android system that you could download onto your phone that is out there for anybody to use, and to hear them talk a little bit about their experience, talk about the program, talk about how competitive it was for both sides to get into the program was a really special moment for me, because you’ve got two young adults who are at a launching point for the rest of their lives and their careers; and in this program together, teaching not just the engineering skills, but they’re bonding and building a relationship between both sides that is going to be so necessary in order to deliver on any sort of peace process down the line, and to have both of those students at the same point in their lives with, hopefully, that same future in front of them, listening to them talk and support each other was really quite remarkable.
TML: A final question, Congressman. The Middle East is a land of nuance and shading; deals are made on handshakes, names, and family heritage; clans give men standing. Do you think a member of the Kennedy clan; Robert Kennedy’s grandson in fact, might be able to do in the region what others can’t or have not?
KENNEDY: You know, I appreciate the question. It has been an honor for me to be able to come to Israel, a couple of times now, to learn about the country and the relationship that we share ,and I think a commitment to democracy, to freedom and human rights, and to a vibrant society that both countries share. A lot of very strong, talented, dedicated individuals from around the world -- including Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and others -- have devoted themselves to trying to bring peace to a longstanding and contentious challenge. If I think that there is any way that I can be helpful in that process I will certainly be honored to play however small a role I could.
Interview conducted by Michael Friedson
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line
Transcription by Ariela Alberts