On August 8, 2017, J Street Philadelphia Executive Committee member David Dormont talked with Rep. Dwight Evans (D-PA) about the congressman’s recent trip to Israel. Rep. Evans was part of a J Street-sponsored delegation of 25 leaders and activists, including seven members of Congress, who spent ten days in Israel. The delegation met with a diverse collection of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, public officials, rabbis, and others in an attempt to better understand the facts on the ground and the complex and nuanced history of Israel and the status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Read the full text of David’s interview with Rep. Evans below.
Q: Congressman Evans, you recently returned from a trip to Israel. Why did you think it was important to visit Israel?
A: I was sworn into Congress on November 14, 2016, after a special election, and the first resolution I was asked to vote on was a congressional resolution condemning the United Nations for its treatment of Israel. Although the telephone calls from my constituents were overwhelmingly against the resolution, as a new member of Congress, I felt that I did not possess a full understanding of the complexities of the issues involving Israel. So I voted present. I then set off to gain a greater understanding of the issues.
During my first six months in office, I met with various constituent groups concerned about Israel, including J Street, AIPAC, ZOA and a group of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Rabbis organized by J Street. After hearing from my constituents, I thought it was important for me to also gain the perspective of the people directly involved in the conflict. In 1983, I had visited Israel with the American Jewish Congress, but I had not been back since. So I decided it would be beneficial to hear first-hand the views of Israelis and Palestinians on the ground.
Q: Why did you decide to go with a delegation led by J Street?
A: First, the timing of the J Street trip was good. Second and more importantly, I have listened to and been impressed by what J Street has had to say about the issues. J Street does a very good job teaching about and explaining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The J Street mission to Israel was basically a graduate course on the subject. The mission provided detailed information and a knowledge-based experience. I learned about the history of Israel and its founding, from the Balfour Declaration during World War I to Israeli Independence in 1948, and how decisions about key issues were made.
The J Street mission presented the conflict as it really is; laying out the truth and not pulling any punches. During our trip we met with people of diverse political perspectives. We met with West Bank Settlers, with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with three different opposition groups in Israel’s Knesset, and with members of the Palestinian Authority. We met with former IDF officers at the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv who stressed that peace was good for Israel’s defense and security. We met with former Israeli soldiers and patriots who support a peace settlement. Finally, we met with both the current US ambassador to Israel and the immediate past ambassador under President Obama. The challenges facing Israelis and Palestinian are extremely complex and all of this is superimposed onto 3,000 years of historical perspective, which serves as a back drop to the conflict. Upon returning to the United States, I believe that no solution can be imposed on the parties. The solution must come from the bottom up.
Q: Can you give us your general impressions from the trip?
A: As a citizen, I believe diplomacy is the only way to achieve a realistic solution, which must be a two-state solution. I believe most of the people there want a two-state solution. But there is disconnect between the Israeli government and its people, with the government moving toward one state. But even the Israeli government is a coalition government with differing views. When I came back to the United States, I reread John Kerry’s December 2016 speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary Kerry did a good job of explaining the challenges facing Americans and the US government as we work for peace. We also cannot forget the importance of Israel as a democracy or the lessons of the Holocaust. But while we must not forget the past, we need to look for a future of peace.
Q: What stands out most from your trip?
A: In the 1960s and 1970s, there was fighting and violence in Philadelphia. At the time, African-American women stood up and took action to help end that violence. As in Philadelphia, I believe women are key factors to solving the problems associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I believe both Israeli and Palestinian women want to change things. I spoke to one Israeli woman with two children who said that she has no other country to which she can move. Israel is her home and because of that she aggressively wants a two-state solution. After my trip to Israel, I also visited Jordan. The Jordanians I spoke with desire peace as well. Water is critically important in the Middle East. I was happy to hear that Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan are working cooperatively to solve their water problems. Everyone is yearning for peace. But the solution to the conflict will come from the bottom up with women taking a lead in the peace process.
Q: Has your trip to Israel changed your thoughts about peace in the Middle East or helped to evolve your thoughts?
A In order to achieve peace, there is a need for strong leadership on both sides. America cannot impose a solution, but strong American leadership is needed. There are tremendous opportunities for the Trump administration to guide the region towards peace, if they decide to actually work towards peace and help bring about a solution.