On a recent trip to Israel, Rabbi Victor Urecki of Charleston and Sen. Joe Manchin met with prime ministers from Israel and Palestine as well as peace negotiators and military leaders.
Urecki, of B’nai Jacob Synagogue, on Charleston’s East End, traveled throughout the historic land with his wife, Marilyn, and Manchin and his wife, Gayle, during the last week in May.
“Marilyn and I were blessed to be invited by the senator to join him, Gayle and their 19-year-old granddaughter, Kelsey Kirby, on this trip,” Urecki said. “It was my first trip to the region despite my involvement in the United States/Israel relationship movement.”
The American Israel Educational Foundation, a charitable organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), organized the trip.
The highlights of his visit, Urecki said, included “a crisscross tour of Israel,” as well as visiting Palestinian territories. They met with Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel and members of the Knesset, or the Israeli parliament.
Urecki said he was impressed by the amount of fascinating information that came out his meetings with local leaders who discussed the situations in Syria, Iran, Egypt and Israel’s relationship with Palestinians.
“We were given an in-depth look at Israel’s strategic concerns and the economic difficulties in the Palestinian territories,” Urecki said.
“Our most moving and memorable moments included seeing the Western Wall for the first time and traveling to Ramallah and Jerusalem and meeting two heads of state in less than 24 hours.”
Those leaders were Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who administers most of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
Standing on the Golan Heights, the Ureckis witnessed actual fighting in Syria.
“Being in the Golan Heights on Friday, its strategic significance along the Israel/Syria border hit home when we heard and witnessed bombs and gunfire from the Syrian Civil War.
“Then we saw Israeli doctors, Jewish and Christian, at the Ziv Hospital near the Syrian border, helping the injured coming over from Syria. We were touched by their complete lack of concern as to whether the injured were at war and did not even recognize the Jewish state.
“Sadly, in this war torn area, the idea of Israelis helping those they are still in conflict with is anathema to many in the Arab world. God bless these Israeli doctors who have treated nearly 300 patients in the last couple of years.”
Urecki was impressed by the strength and diversity of religions throughout the region.
“We attended Mass with the Manchins at the Church of the Holy Sepulcrhe, heard the Islamic call to prayer and witnessed the celebration of the Jewish Sabbath. We realized the power and strength of religion in this area.”
Urecki said he thought he knew a lot about the region before arriving in Israel, but quickly became “shocked” by the complexity of everything going on there.
“I left with a greater sense of understanding of the challenges to reaching a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
“There is a lot of history, but simply not enough geography to easily create an agreement that would provide for the safety and security Israel needs and for the contiguous territorial needs necessary to create a viable Palestinian state. At the present, there is no ‘solution.’”
Most Palestinians, Urecki said, are still not willing to accept there will continue to be a Jewish state in the area, and most Israelis are unwilling to make any more concessions.
“Those who may be willing to make bold moves to change the political reality are either not in office or have no credibility or standing with their people.”
Manchin, Urecki said, was “extremely engaged, constantly asking questions and making these meetings much more than simple ‘meet and greets.’” Most meetings lasted more than an hour.
Urecki called Hamdallah a “gracious host” who provided a thoughtful and compelling analysis of the reasons peace talks failed and what the U.S. should do to help resolve the situation.
“He focused on the need for both sides to get back to the negotiating table and that it was absolutely critical that funding not be cut to the Palestinian Authority.”
Urecki said Hamdallah “also tried, unsuccessfully, to answer our concerns regarding the unification government of Fatah and Hamas,” which are militant Palestinian rival groups.
A new coalition government was actually created June 2, but Hamdallah said he still does not have any authority over the Gaza Strip, which is under the control of Hamas.
“There are still a lot of unresolved issues. Gaza is under the control of Hamas, which is sworn to the destruction of Israel and is not really part of the Fatah government.”
Urecki said he felt safe during most of his travels.
“But we saw one sign on the West Bank that said ‘Israelis Are Forbidden To Enter.’ The West Bank has three sections. That was the section under complete control of the Palestinian Authority.
“Twenty minutes away, a Palestinian told me he could not enter Jerusalem. He never did anything wrong. But he can’t enter because of security concerns.”
When the Ureckis and Manchins met with Netanyahu, he focused on two areas: the need for Israeli security and the potential threat Iran poses to the world.
“The threat of a nuclear Iran was one area the two prime ministers completely agreed on,” Urecki said.
“I want to go back again and continue to learn more about the compelling and competing narratives of the two sides.”
Reach Paul J. Nyden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5164.