Rep. Ted Yoho discusses insights from recent trip to Israel
Published: Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 5:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 5:46 p.m.
Recently returned from a trip to Israel, U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho said he has a better appreciation of that nation's security challenges and a better understanding of why the U.S. is increasingly distrusted in the Middle East.
But, the Gainesville Republican added in an interview Thursday, the weeklong visit did not yield any immediate solutions on how to relieve the longtime tension between America's main ally in the region and its neighbors.
Yoho traveled to Israel as part of a Republican congressional delegation. The trip, like an earlier one catering to congressional Democrats, was sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charitable organization closely affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group.
While there, Yoho said, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority; as well as military and civilian leaders and everyday Israeli citizens.
Yoho described his trip as "awesome" for its historical, archeological and religious aspects.
Visits to sites like the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane and Bethlehem left a lasting impression, he said.
"That's the hub of all major religions," Yoho said. "It made the Bible real for me."
But Yoho indicated that the trip, which wrapped up on Sunday, also presented an opportunity for him to explore matters of international diplomacy and security that have intrigued him since the oil embargoes of the 1970s intensified America's interest in Middle Eastern politics.
"It's always fascinated me how screwed up that whole region is," said Yoho, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who also sits on subcommittees that oversee the Middle East and terrorism.
Yoho indicated that what he saw and heard while in Israel tested much of his own political philosophy.
For example, Yoho said he'd prefer America to have a noninterventionist foreign policy, but developments in the Middle East perhaps won't allow for that.
The freshman congressman recalled reports about agents from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese group known to have committed terrorist acts, caught while infiltrating the U.S. from Mexico.
Yoho also noted that security officials he met with while in Israel convinced him that Iran is close to having a nuclear weapon and further developing missiles or "dirty bombs" that could potentially be used against the United States. Netanyahu told the group that Israel would prefer to not act alone in trying to halt Iran's nuclear push, Yoho added.
"I'd like to be an isolationist," he said, "but what if they put that (dirty bomb) in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium? When do you want to stop that?
"National security is job one in the United States," Yoho said.
Yoho said his visit helped him understand first-hand the security challenges facing Israel, which is smaller than New Jersey. Officials there repeatedly impressed upon the delegation that, unlike America, Israel is not bordered by friendly well-wishers.
That point was driven home during the session with Erekat, Yoho said.
Yoho recalled that Erekat declined to take up a suggestion from Republican Congressman Randy Webber of Texas, who urged Erekat to go to the Palestinian people and denounce terrorism.
Yoho said he also was baffled by Erekat's response to his own question.
Erekat, he said, conceded that the nation of Israel had a right to exist but rejected the premise that it should be populated by the Jewish people.
That position, Yoho said, undermines any real chance of negotiating peace.
"Everybody needs to take a chill pill," he said.
America's often muddled foreign policy in the region generates distrust, Yoho said.
The U.S. willingness to launch preemptive military action, as in Iraq, and a demand for democratic reforms while demonstrating an unwillingness to accept results in democratic elections, as in Egypt and the Palestinian territories, hurt America's credibility, Yoho said.
Yoho said anti-Western activists are gaining traction with younger Arabs across the region by rejecting democracy as something that is not inherent to their way of life.
America cannot impose that, he added. But withholding the "cookie" of foreign aid could be a way to condition behavior toward greater acceptance of rights such as freedom of religion or of the press, Yoho said.
"What we've been doing is not working any more," Yoho said. "We've got to go from aid to trade, and that's where our diplomacy needs to be stronger."