Josh Gottheimer talks about Israel
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Josh Gottheimer talks about Israel

The Democratic congressman tells some of what he learned on the official trip

From left, Josh Gottheimer, Naftali Bennett, and AIPAC head Mort Fridman of Teaneck.
From left, Josh Gottheimer, Naftali Bennett, and AIPAC head Mort Fridman of Teaneck.

Just in case he forgot what it looked like, Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J. 5th Dist.) was able to see a peaceful transfer of power looks like.

He was in Israel as part of a bipartisan delegation that included eight members of Congress, four Democrats, four Republicans when the prime ministership moved from Naftali Bennett to Yair Lapid.

There are quite a few other differences between this change of power and the most recent one in Washington, where Mr. Gottheimer works. Israel has a parliamentary system, and Mr. Lapid, who had been part of a coalition government that saw Mr. Bennett take his turn in the office first, now heads a caretaker government. And there will be yet more elections in November.

There were no ceremonies as the government went from one set of hands to another. “It happened without a lot of ceremony and fanfare,” Mr. Gottheimer said.

There also was no insurrection. No violence. “We talked a lot about that,” Mr. Gottheimer said.

That “we” included Representative Donald Norcross (D-N.J. 1st Dist.) and Mort Fridman, the president of AIPAC.

“We really covered the map in terms of meeting with experts, with Israel’s national security adviser, and Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, and Benjamin Netanyahu, and with Tom Nides, our ambassador to Israel, and with Mansour Abbas,” the Knesset member from the United Arab List.

“I found two things interesting,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “One was the commonality among all the Israeli leaders, including MK Abbas, about what their concerns and objectives are. One overriding feeling is the deep appreciation of the relationship between the United States and Israel. I can’t quote anyone directly” — part of the rules under which he was operating — “but that came from all of them. They appreciate the transparency and the constructive relationship and partnership between the United States, this administration, and Israel.

“They feel strongly about the importance of being bipartisan, which is always critically important to me, and to them. Everyone on the Israeli side stressed it — how important it is for Americans to be bipartisan in their support.”

The second interesting development was “that it felt like a very optimistic moment, even with everything else going on, because of the Abraham Accords, and the regional security and military cooperation between Israel and the other countries in the accords. You get a sense of how often the parties talk to each other” — very often — “and of how much that is impacting life in the region.

“That was a big part of every conversation.”

The Abraham Accords are likely to expand to include other Middle Eastern countries, Mr. Gottheimer said. “We met with a lot of business owners who are operating regionally. They are hopping on planes, going back and forth. Flights are full of people from these nations.”

He thinks that although the Palestinians are not included in the Abraham Accords, “ultimately its success will put more pressure on the Palestinian Authority to change its ways, even though it has elected not to be part of it.” Otherwise, it will continue to be left out of the discussion, and of the progress that follows.

“We also covered the president’s upcoming trip to the Middle East, and we talked about the JCPOA and concerns about Iran,” Mr. Gottheimer continued. (The JCPOA is the much debated, in some circles much derided, in other circles dearly missed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more colloquially known as the Iran deal.) “The topics are not new, and the concerns are not new. We talked about BDS and antisemitism; when we met with the Palestinians we talked about ‘pay to slay.’

“We also talked about the death of Shireen Abu Akleh,” the American-Palestinian journalist who was shot near the entrance to a refugee camp in Palestine. It’s unclear whether she was shot by Israeli or Palestinian forces. “I was pushing the Palestinians on turning over the bullets,” Mr. Gottheimer said; he is advocating for an impartial investigation.

Abortion also came up, not as an issue having anything to do with Israel but on most Americans’ minds. “It was a devastating decision,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “The idea of the court getting between a woman and her doctor, a woman and her faith, in what I believe is a very personal, private decision.

“And then you recognize, from Thomas’s concurrence and then by other comments made by other members of the court, what impacts on personal privacy, on same-sex marriage, on birth control, lie ahead.

“We are going to turn the clock back on privacy in our country, and this is a real jolt to a lot of Americans.

“I have heard from people who are devastated by this decision, and who are concerned about their fellow Americans. Thankfully, we live in a state where a woman’s right to choose is protected, but there are many places around the country where this is not the case.

“We have to stick together as a country, and this is just pulling us apart, pitting one state against another. I worry a lot about the consequences of that decision.”

He moved on to gun laws; the Supreme Court made a decision overturning an old New York State law about concealed carry the day before it overturned Roe v. Wade.

“It came right on the heels of the bill I worked on, the bipartisan gun safety legislation,” Mr. Gottheimer said. It passed; “at the same time, we were hit with a decision that will lead to more death.

“This is a very activist court,” he said.

But there is some unequivocal good news for the region. The Gateway program to improve rail transportation in and between New Jersey and New York has begun; it’s part of President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill. The Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River is being replaced. Built in 1910 it has to swing open sideways for big ships to pass. Too often, the bridge fails to close snugly and align its tracks properly, causing delays up and down the Northeast Corridor for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit riders. It’s being replaced by Portal North, which will allow ships to pass below. the first step in a long-awaited improvement project which will also include new rail tunnels beneath the Hudson.

“I helped pass the bill,” Mr. Gottheimer said.

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