58 members of Congress will be in Israel in the coming days on a tour sponsored by the America Israel Education Foundation, an arm of the pro-Israel lobbying organization, AIPAC. Though AIPAC claims the trip is an annual ritual with no connection to the increasingly rancorous debate over the Iran nuclear deal, the trip offers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a key opportunity for face-to-face fear mongering with some of the lawmakers who control the deal’s fate.
After the Republican delegation visits Israel, 22 Democrats — including several who represent key swing votes on the deal — will be shepherded through the AIPAC tour by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, an Israel lobby favorite. The freshmen legislators will visit all the requisite destinations, from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has featured exhibits accusing Palestinians of a central role in the Jewish genocide in Europe, to the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who likes to present influential visitors with a special ring he purchased in a local pawn shop that supposedly legitimizes Israeli control over Jerusalem.
As a journalist who has covered the crisis in the Holy Land for several years, I have composed a tour route that might allow congressional newcomers to the situation to expand their understanding of Israel beyond the strict limitations imposed by their AIPAC-endorsed guides. They should engage with the reality of Israel, not only within the illusory realm of “Israel proper,” but in the Jews-only settlements and Palestinian ghettoes that make up the Occupied Territories. And they should meet the people who elected Netanyahu and the most right-wing governing coalition in Israel’s history.
So here is a list of a few places every member of Congress — and every American — should consider visiting on a trip to the Holy Land.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East that possesses nuclear weapons. Yet according to its policy of nuclear ambiguity, which the US government has faithfully honored, the self-proclaimed Jewish state refuses to acknowledge its arsenal and will not allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials to inspect it. Unlike Iran, Israel has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Profileration Agreement. Away from the scrutiny of international inspectors, Israel has produced scores of nuclear warheads along with a Jericho missile delivery system that puts much of Europe within striking range. According to journalist Seymour Hersh, Israel received an emergency package of military aid from the US during the 1973 war through “nuclear blackmail,” or threatening to blanket the Middle East in a hail of nuclear destruction if Washington failed to accede to its demands.
For those lawmakers who aren’t too hung over from the drunken skinny dipping outings that AIPAC has sponsored at the Sea of Galilee, a detour to Dimona is a must. In this economically depressed southern Israeli city, members of Congress will find the location of the nuclear weapons plant that the Israeli government officially refers to as a “textile factory.”
But a word of caution: When former Israeli member of Knesset Issam Makhoul publicly condemned his country’s nuclear program, he was targeted with a sophisticated car bomb. Mordechai Vanunu has not yet escaped the nightmare that began when he blew the whistle on Dimona. After being kidnapped by Mossad agents in the UK, Vanunu spent 12 years in tortuous solitary confinement in an Israeli prison. He is still prevented from traveling outside the country and barred from speaking to the press.
2. “The Arab room”
Members of Congress don’t have to travel far to see one of the first places many Americans are forced to visit as soon as they arrive to the Holy Land. It is the so-called “Arab room” inside Ben Gurion International Airport where Americans of Palestinian and Arab descent are interrogated and humiliated by Israel’s Shin Bet. The Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee has said itregistered around 100 complaints a year from Americans of Arab descent who said they had been denied entry by Israeli security services on the basis of their ethnicity. Before being deported, these unfortunate travelers were first flagged by racial profiling agents and sent to the “Arab room.”
Among the Americans most recently deported by Israel is Susan Abulhawa, the best-selling author of the critically acclaimed book, “Mornings in Jenin.” “This is our Israel. This is for Jews. No Palestinian should come to Israel,” an Israeli security officer said a few days later as he deported George Khoury, a Palestinian-American professor on his way to visit his birthplace in Jerusalem. Though Israel’s policy of denial focuses disproportionately on Arabs, American Jews like Julia Carmel Salazar have been deported as well on suspicion that they were on their way to meet Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.