U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin—back from his first trip abroad as a member of Congress since his 2016 election—returned home with decidedly mixed emotions.
“We could be in meetings for hours with government officials, and leave in a very despondent mood,” recalled the Takoma Park Democrat, part of a legislative delegation to Israel, Jordan and Afghanistan led by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. “And then we would meet with young people who were trying to work across lines of [nationality] and ethnicity to bring a change to the region. What gives me the most hope is all of the young people throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan who are working for peace and reconciliation and human rights for everyone.”
In a telephone interview, Raskin—who returned from the week-long trip just prior to the Easter/Passover weekend—also cited “the powerful role that women’s movements are taking everywhere from Israel to the West Bank to Afghanistan” as “another cause for optimism.”
Declared Raskin: “The world seems to have embraced the notion that the way to end poverty is by educating girls and empowering women. All of the development policy experts we spoke with were laser-focused on protecting the rights and mobility of women. Those things were grounds for a lot of hope.”
But Raskin—part of a mission that was timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel—emerged from the delegation’s meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with little hope for progress toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has persisted throughout the country’s seven decades of existence.
“I think it’s fair to say that our delegation was very interested in hearing about what progress was being made toward an enduring peace and a two-state solution,” Raskin said. “But that was not much on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s agenda … . He had nothing positive to say about the prospects for peace and for reviving the peace process.”
Raskin, an often acerbic critic of President Donald Trump, drew some parallels between Netanyahu and his U.S. counterpart.
“I left the meeting feeling that Prime Minister Netanyahu was overwhelmingly if not exclusively focused on threats to Israel and not focused at all on what opportunities there are for peace, reconciliation and positive change,” Raskin related. “Much like our own president, Netanyahu seems overwhelmingly focused on national security threats, especially Iran, but also with his political enemies and the political corruption investigation which has come to his doorstep. He was far more focused on Iran … than he was on the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”
The 11-member legislative delegation—which, Raskin noted, also met with several groups “that bring Israeli Jews and Palestinians together to try to work toward peace and a two-state solution”—was comprised entirely of Democratic House members. “It was supposed to be a bipartisan delegation and Republicans were definitely invited and scheduled to come,” Raskin said.
Aides to House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin did not respond to a request for comment on why there were no Republicans legislators on the trip, given that congressional delegations traveling overseas are traditionally bipartisan.
The delegation left Israel on the day violence erupted on the Gaza Strip, a development that “did not really shock anyone on our trip, given what we had been hearing about the conditions among the Palestinians and despair of any progress being made,” Raskin said. “Many of the other people [outside of the Netanyahu government] we were talking with in Israel were telling us that the Gaza Strip was a tinder box that could explode at any time. It’s an area where the unemployment rate is 50 percent, and even higher for young people.”
Unlike the visit to Israel and an earlier stop in Jordan, the Afghanistan leg of the trip was not revealed publicly until after the delegation had arrived—emblematic of the fragile security in a nation where the lengthy civil war continues between the current government and the Taliban Muslim fundamentalists who once ran the country.
Nonetheless, Raskin was upbeat in the wake of his visit. “The positive news is that 90 percent of the Afghan people reject the Taliban and have no interest in turning the clock back to criminal theocratic rule in the country,” he contended.
He added: “The war obviously drags on 16 years later, but our military forces are determined not to be engaged in direct armed hostilities against the Taliban, but rather see their role as training the Afghan forces and helping to solidify progress in the justice and education systems and the fight against corruption. Everyone agreed the country is building up and strengthening its political and social institutions.”
Raskin said the nation “has seen some real progress” in terms of both freedom of the press and the role of women. “When the U.S. went into Afghanistan after 9/11, there were no girls’ schools in the entire country. Today, there are hundreds of schools for girls, [and] 40 percent of the students in colleges and universities are women,” he noted. “It was against the law to own a TV in Afghanistan when 9/11 happened; today there are more than 100 TV channels and networks.”
While the conflict in Afghanistan is now the longest war in which the United States has been involved, Raskin acknowledged: “I think America will have to continue to help Afghanistan on its journey to becoming a stable and modern democratic nation. But I am pleased that we are increasingly disengaging from an aggressive war fighting posture.”
And, in a swipe at Trump, he added: “No one we spoke with over there thought that there was going to be a military solution to the problems of Afghanistan. … I saw before I left [on the trip] that President Trump said we’re not in the business of nation building—we’re killing terrorists. That gets it pretty much backwards.
“If you kill one terrorist, another terrorist quickly takes his place. But if you help Afghanistan become a functioning democratic society, it will be able to defeat the terrorists and leave them in the dustbin of history… . This administration has been trying to delete as much diplomacy and civilian assistance as possible around the world, but the military people emphasize that is the kind of assistance most necessary to create a resilient society.”
Raskin said he was invited on the trip by Pelosi. And while—unlike a number of other members of the delegation—he does not serve on House committees with jurisdiction over foreign policy or national security issues, he suggested his presence was tied to his role as a professor of constitutional law for a quarter of a century prior to his election to the House.
Pelosi “knows there are important rule of law questions that people face throughout the region, and I was the voice of rule of law and constitutional concerns on the trip, as well as human rights and the law of war question,” he said.
He left on the trip just a day after organizing and participating in several events in conjunction with the March To End Gun Violence in downtown Washington on March 24.
“Our high school and college activists in America should know that their campaign to stop gun violence is being watched carefully and is encouraging people all over the world,” Raskin said. “Just as the high school and college students have given America hope of breaking the deadlock over gun safety, the young people we saw in the Middle East are working to get beyond the hate and war to a better life for everybody.”