U.S. Rep Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, visited Israel and the West Bank in August as part of a congressional delegation trip sponsored by the U.S. Israel Education Association, a Christian NGO that supports Israeli settlements in the West Bank and opposes the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Wagner, the vice ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made the trip with three Republican lawmakers.
Wagner met last week with members of American Jewish Committee (AJC) - St. Louis and later announced that she was joining three Missouri lawmakers on the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism. The others already on the 169-member committee from Missouri are Reps. William Lacy Clay Jr. and Emanuel Cleaver, who are Democrats, and Vicki Hartzler, a Republican.
Wagner spoke last week with the Jewish Light about the trip and her positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What motivated you to go on the trip?
I serve as the second-highest ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and have in the past served on the Middle East subcommittee. I hadn’t been back to Israel since I had picked up this very important committee that I am pleased to be the vice ranking member of. And I had just led the way along with my good friend Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y. and two Democrats, [Reps.] Jerry Nadler and Brad Schneider on H.R. 246, which was the [anti-]boycott, divestment and sanctions movement legislation that we passed in July with a vote of 398 to 17. (It) shows strong support for Israel and condemns the BDS movement in very strong terms. It was a good bipartisan piece and something we had leaned into and worked hard to pass, and I thought the timing was right [for the trip].
What were the highlights?
What was different about this trip is we were actually able to venture unencumbered throughout the West Bank, and inside the Green Line, visiting Judea and Samaria [the biblical names that the Israeli government uses to describe territory it controls in the West Bank].
We went to the city of Ariel, the capital of Samaria, and that was an amazing trip. We sat down with the Judea Samaria Chamber of Commerce, which is a coalition of hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian businesses working together side-by-side for a sustained economic development of Israel. We visited a couple businesses — one that produced halvah — and these were Palestinians and Israelis that were working side-by-side, and we got to speak freely with employees and Palestinians who told our delegation that they were so pleased to have the work and were making three to four times more than they ever would have made under the Palestinian Authority. They were standing up to the PA, and we got to the humanity of things, and talked about how Jews and Palestinians can live in harmony. I had Palestinians that told me the BDS movement hurts them as much, if not more, than the State of Israel and Jews.
Why did the Palestinians say that the BDS movement hurts them as well?
Well, as I said, we saw them working side-by-side and any movements to delegitimize Israel — to hurt their economic development and prosperity — affects those Palestinians that are working, especially those that are working in an integrated environment in the West Bank, so they found it harmful to them.
You told the Jerusalem Post that you have an “evolving positon” on a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Could you explain what you meant and what led you to that position?
Obviously I want to be very careful to say what U.S. policy currently is, which is a two-state solution. But what I saw in the West Bank — these aren’t settlements, these were cities, these were people working hand-in-hand, and obviously the U.S. has recognized the Golan Heights as sovereign Israel territory, and I feel that way about Judea and Samaria also. And obviously, so does the Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said he plans to annex all Israeli settlements in the West Bank].
I think that the [two-state solution] position is one that you will see evolve over time. I’m always careful to be certain that we are stating what U.S. policy and positions are. I’m a former U.S. ambassador, and I worked for the State Department, so I never want to get ahead of my skis in that regard. So I would say evolving is a good statement to make and accurate, just as I would say the area is evolving. Things have changed a great deal in Israel in five years — especially in the West Bank, so we are hopeful to the extent that it brings peace and harmony and safety and security and economic prosperity to all people living in Israel, that’s what our goal should be.
So evolving to what? What would an alternative to a two-state solution be?
Well, recognizing some of these areas that have been talked about in terms of settlements or occupied areas as actually part of the sovereign country of Israel.
What would you say to people who say that Israel annexing those parts of the West Bank would be an obstacle to peace?
What we want is peace and harmony, safety and security and economic development in the entire region and a de-escalation. That’s what I hope. It’s certainly not my place to dictate the outcome of that. That’s up to Israelis and Palestinians. That’s up to their leadership and policy makers, but I was encouraged with what I saw. I thought there was great hope there.
A fellow Republican on the trip, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, said support for Israel remains bipartisan. Do you agree with that?
I do. If you look at my piece of legislation condemning the BDS movement, we had 398 bipartisan members of Congress that supported that piece of legislation. It’s sad to be having this debate or question. I’ve never heard it before in the halls of Congress. Our support for Israel — our shared values — our economic and trade work and benefits that we share and most importantly our national security and defense and greater global defense is very, very important. It’s been an issue that I wouldn’t say has been bipartisan — it’s been non-partisan. It’s the only democracy in the Middle East. It’s our greatest ally in that region, and I hate to see anyone in Congress break away from that support.
What’s your position on funding for the Palestinian Authority?
I believe they cut off funding for the PA. I don’t want this going to fund Hezbollah or terrorist organizations or corrupt leaders. If money can get to the Palestinian people through NGOs or other organizations, I’m for that, but sending money to corrupt leaders and dictators that are supporting terrorist organizations in the PA, I’m not for that.
[Editor’s note: While Hezbollah, a terrorist organization located in Lebanon, has provided funding to the Palestinian Authority in the past, the Light could not find reports that the PA has provided funding to Hezbollah.]