Reflections from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Austria:
Standing with Israel, strictly enforcing the nuclear deal with Iran, defeating ISIL, and advancing U.S. interests in the Middle East
The past year was a momentous one for America and the world community. From the nuclear agreement with Iran to the rise of the so-called Islamic State (or ISIL) to the Syrian refugee crisis, the Middle East was often at the center of our foreign policy in 2015. My role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has given me an opportunity to weigh in on many of these issues:
How should the U.S. enforce the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran?
What can America do to best support our allies in the fight against ISIL?
How can we secure our borders without forgoing our fundamental values?
While hearing from experts is critical, some questions are best answered through in-person experience. That’s why I jumped at the chance to travel with seven of my Senate colleagues to the region earlier this month. Our Congressional Delegation, or “CODEL”, during the first week of January brought us to Austria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The purpose of this trip was to examine regional security in the Middle East with a special focus on the Iran nuclear deal, the global campaign against ISIL, and the Middle East peace process. Throughout the trip, I received excellent support from the men and women of the United States State Department. I want to offer a special note of gratitude to the U.S. ambassadors, consul generals, and control officers who serve our country overseas with distinction every day. Keep reading for a day-by-day account of my trip.
Date: Monday, January 4, 2016
Subject: Visit to Vienna, home of the world’s nuclear watchdog
I arrived in Vienna, Austria just before lunch after an overnight flight from Washington. Over lunch, my colleagues and I discussed three topics with U.S. Ambassador to Austria, Alexa Wesner.
First, we discussed the Austrian government’s views on the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The agreement was negotiated in Vienna, and the Austrians host a number of United Nations Offices in Vienna, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s nuclear watchdog.
Second, we discussed the refugee crisis in Austria. Austria has one of the highest asylum seeker rates in all of Europe. Approximately 95,000 refugees applied for asylum in 2015, well above the 28,000 Austria saw in 2014. This is only a portion of the 600,000 refugees and migrants who will have come through Austria over the course of the year, most of whom will ultimately proceed to Germany and beyond. As political leaders debate how to best handle the influx of refugees, Austria’s response to the crisis has been organized and humane.
The third topic we discussed with Ambassador Wesner was countering ISIL and foreign terrorist fighters. Austria is a partner in the US-led anti-ISIL coalition, focusing on prevention of radicalization by working with the Islamic faith community to emphasize that radical jihadism violates the principles of Islam.
Following lunch, the delegation went to the United Nations office in Vienna for a meeting with Yukiya Amano, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Amano was joined by three of his senior colleagues who most closely follow the Iranian nuclear program. I asked whether Iran was living up to its commitments under the JCPOA, and if the IAEA has all the resources it needs to monitor, inspect, and verify Iran’s nuclear program to make sure it is exclusively peaceful. I was impressed with the expertise of the IAEA officials, and I urged them to alert the United States and our Western partners the moment they detect any Iranian bad behavior. I assured the IAEA that I will remain focused on enforcing the nuclear deal and holding Iran accountable for its actions.
We then departed the IAEA headquarters for dinner with U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Dan Baer, and Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the Commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe. The OSCE and its 57 member states work to promote a comprehensive approach to a wide range of security-related concerns, including Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its continuing threats to Ukraine.
My time in Vienna was well-spent, and I left better understanding how the IAEA will inspect Iran’s nuclear program and how the U.S. diplomatic presence to the government of Austria and the OSCE is advancing our interests by working in partnership to stabilize Eastern Europe and the broader Middle East.
Date: Tuesday, January 5, 2016
Subject: Insights from Jerusalem and Bethlehem
On Tuesday morning, after a three-hour flight, we arrived in Jerusalem and had the honor of meeting with Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel. President Rivlin delivered a speech in June of 2015 in which he raised questions about the future of Israel and the possibility of all different elements of Israeli society living together in peace. In our meeting, President Rivlin built on these themes and shared insights that were helpful in illuminating the threats Israel faces from abroad and within. Despite such a difficult environment, Rivlin was optimistic that the members of the global community who have spent so much time focused on Middle East peace can bring about some sense of hope for all people living in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
Next we drove to Bethlehem, where we met Mayor Vera Baboun. A Palestinian Arab Christian and mother of five, the Mayor impressed me as a leader trying to improve the lives of her constituents. Serving in local government is, in many ways, the most direct manifestation of democracy, and talking with the Mayor reminded me of my days as Delaware’s New Castle Country Executive. Mayor Baboun faces a challenging agenda, including working with limited resources and serving a population that is eager for some sense that Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace, side-by-side, in two separate states.
After the meeting, the Senate delegation toured the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church marks the birthplace of Jesus, a site which holds prominent religious significance to Christians and Muslims. I was struck by the beauty and history of the church. The church is currently administered jointly by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and the Armenian Apostolic authorities. The church is also a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.
Date: Wednesday, January 6, 2016
Subject: A Traditional Italian Mass, Dangerous Tunnels, and Insights from Israeli Leadership
I woke up early on Wednesday to join my colleagues, Senators Tim Kaine of Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, for a traditional Italian Mass at the Church at Gethsemane, the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem where Jesus prayed and his disciples slept the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. The mass was moving, and directly in front of the altar the church featured the rock on which Jesus prayed.
After church, the delegation met with leaders of the American Israel Political Action Committee over breakfast. We learned about the ways in which entrepreneurs from the United States and Israel are working to develop new technologies and pursue innovative ideas across a variety of economic sectors. In fact, American companies account for two-thirds of the approximately 300 international research and development hubs in Israel.
The delegation then drove south to the Kerem Shalom border crossing, where Israel meets the borders of both Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Gaza is a small strip of land, 25 miles long and three to seven and a half miles wide, currently under control of Hamas, a terrorist organization. Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005. Since that time, Gaza has become a staging point for repeated attacks against Israel. The territory also suffers from an unemployment rate of 42 percent.
At Kerem Shalom, we met with Israeli officials who help process trucks carrying cargo in and out of Gaza each day. Each truck is unloaded, inspected, and reloaded before it can cross the border. The crossing was well organized and the activities were conducted with a high degree of efficiency. The Israelis regularly catch smugglers attempting to move unauthorized material across the border.
Next we visited a site where the Israeli Ministry of Defense works with the United States to test technology aimed at detecting the tunnels terrorists use to smuggle weapons and attackers into Israel from Gaza. Hamas has used these tunnels to abduct Israeli soldiers and strike fear into the hearts of Israelis. My colleague, Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, wrote a provision into the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (the annual bill that Congress uses to establish our national security priorities) to provide $40 million to help the Israelis improve their tunnel detection technology.
I was proud to support that provision, and in the years to come, I look forward to working on similar efforts to help our vital ally, Israel, defend itself.
Following our stop at the testing facility, we visited the Black Arrow Memorial, an overlook with views of the entire Gaza Strip and the Mediterranean Sea behind it. The site commemorates Israeli soldiers who conducted a raid in February 1955 to respond to terrorist violence responsible for Israeli deaths.
When we arrived back in Jerusalem, we took a brief tour of the Old City. A highlight of the tour included a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, containing both the site where Jesus was crucified and the site of His empty tomb where He was buried and resurrected. We also saw the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. These sites represent some of the holiest sites in the world for both the Jewish and Muslim faiths. I was struck by the number of Israeli Defense Force patrols and the relative calm despite so many recent terrorist attacks.
Wednesday evening, I had a chance to speak directly with two Israeli political leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Party and Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog. Both men discussed the unshakable bonds between Israel and the United States, and we discussed how our governments can work together to promote a more peaceful, stable Middle East. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke eloquently about leading Israel at a time of an historical shift of tremendous consequence in which Israel faces many threats, including Iran and ISIL.
Wednesday was a long day, but well worth it. Israel is an amazing place, full of history and culture. I saw firsthand many of the challenges the people of Israel face, and as a Middle Eastern partner that shares our democratic values, I will continue to do all I can to support an enduring partnership between our countries.
Date: Thursday, January 7, 2016
Subject: Final meeting in Israel, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
We woke up early on Thursday morning to drive from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, where we joined Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon for an important discussion about the threats Israel faces and how the United States can help Israel protect itself. One critical element of this discussion was the current negotiations between the United States and Israel to renew an agreement to provide long-term security assistance to Israel. The Defense Minister Ya’alon was pleased with the status of the talks, and urged members of Congress to support a robust agreement. I will continue to press the Obama Administration to finalize a new 10-year agreement with Israel that accomplishes these goals.
Our delegation then left Israel and traveled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where we landed in the mid-afternoon and drove straight to the U.S. Embassy. There, the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Joe Westphal, and his team briefed us on the latest dynamics within the Kingdom, particularly the Saudis’ decision to execute 47 prisoners accused of supporting terrorism, including a prominent Shia sheikh. We were also briefed on the Saudi war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have a close relationship dating back to 1940, and the Kingdom plays a unique role in the Arab and Islamic worlds as “the Land of the Two Holy Mosques” of Mecca and Medina.
After our briefing, we met with Saudi women who serve on the Shura Council, a formal advisory body to the monarchy with the power to propose laws to the King and his cabinet. (The Shura Council cannot pass or enforce laws.) On December 12, 2015, Saudi women voted in municipal elections for the first time, and 21 women were elected to office. Despite this modest progress, there remain a number of fundamental rights not granted to women in Saudi Arabia, so it was both useful and inspiring to sit down with four Saudi women to discuss their accomplishments and their goals for Saudi Arabia’s future.
After a traditional Saudi dinner, our delegation met with senior officials from the Saudi Ministry of the Interior. These officials spoke about the Saudi government’s efforts to fight ISIL and Al Qaeda terrorists who continue to threaten Saudi Arabia and our partners in the region. I was impressed by their understanding of how extremists are using the internet to brainwash young Arab men, and by the Saudi plan to rehabilitate these men and counter radicalization within its borders.
If the international community is to be successful in defeating terrorists who espouse a warped version of Islam, we will need states like Saudi Arabia to condemn terrorist violence and help fight against recruitment efforts.
Date: Friday, January 8, 2016
Subject: Istanbul, the city where Europe meets Asia
After a good night’s sleep in Riyadh, we traveled to Istanbul, a beautiful city on the Bosporus Strait and the commercial capital of Turkey. Turkey has been a NATO Ally since 1952 and continues to be an important security and economic partner for the United States.
We arrived in the early afternoon and immediately discussed regional dynamics with U.S. Ambassador John Bass. Next, we had lengthy meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Both officials emphasized the broad range of challenges Turkey currently faces, including a Kurdish insurgency in the southeastern part of the country, two million Syrian refugees, close proximity to ISIL, and an imposition of Russian sanctions following Turkey’s downing of a Russian aircraft in November 2015. Erdogan and Davutoglu also made it clear that they appreciate the support of the United States, and that they want to continue to work with us to defeat ISIL and pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria.
Date: Saturday, January 9, 2016
Subject: A mosque, a museum, and meeting a Turkish activist
On the final day of our trip, the delegation visited Sultanahmet Square in central Istanbul to tour the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, two historic buildings with religious and cultural significance. The Blue Mosque was built in 1609 during the rule of Ahmed I, a Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The mosque is still used as a site of prayer today.
The Hagia Sophia is a former Christian church, a former imperial mosque, and now a museum. The structure is famous for its massive dome and is often considered a true example of Byzantine architecture.
Before departing Istanbul for the airport, Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and I met with LGBT activist Sedef Cakmak, a member of a local Turkish Municipal Council. Turkey is a socially conservative Muslim country, and LGBT rights are not enshrined in the Turkish constitution. Sedef is an ardent advocate for the legal rights of LGBT persons and a role model for others. In 2015, she worked with the government and the police to make sure the Istanbul Pride Parade could occur. My conversation with her was inspiring, and I look forward to continuing to push for the advancement of human rights in the broader Middle East based on Sedef’s example.
Our delegation returned to the United States on Sunday, January 10. Just two days later, on Tuesday, January 12, I awoke to the horrible news that a suicide bomber killed ten people and injured more in Sultanahmet Square, the very same area where my colleagues and I stood just 72 hours earlier. The attack was a chilling reminder of the threats facing the Turkish people and all those in the Middle East seeking a better life in the face of historic changes impacting the region. My thoughts, prayers, and condolences go out to the victims of the attack and their families.
As the second session of the 114th Congress begins, I recommit myself to working with my colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to support our allies and partners in the region and demonstrate the best of American leadership in a tumultuous part of the world.