Today, I sat down for an exclusive interview with United States Senator Al Franken about his recent trip to Israel with the American Israel Education Foundation, AIPAC’seducational arm. [Watch the video interview below]
His trip was filled with meetings and dinners with a wide variety of different kinds of people from those in Israel’s medical technology industry, to terror victims, to Israeli parliament members and the Prime Ministers of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Senator even went to a synagogue in Jerusalem on Friday night for religious services, and he and his wife Franni joined their Rabbi and several community members for a Sabbath meal. Overall, Senator Franken said he had a fabulous time and learned a lot about Israel, its politics and its people.
Senator Franken discussed Israel’s peace process with the Palestinians in his private meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. In meeting with Netanyahu, he said, “My job wasn’t to try to convince him of anything. My job was to get to know him a little better and have him get to know me better and to ask questions.”
In reflecting on those two pivotal meetings, Senator Franken said that one of the things he found fascinating was that ”there seems to be this basic agreement that the peace process is stalled” and everyone seemed to be okay with that. And “[Palestinian Prime Minister] Fayyad was basically saying, let’s use the time here in the West Bank to try to build up civic institutions to build up economically in order to make ourselves ready to be a state.” However, although impressed with Fayyad, Senator Franken expressed the caveat that it was his “sense that [Fayyad] does not have a huge constituency. He’s not Fatah, he’s not Hamas.”
Senator Franken discussed with me some of the ways that he believes that the United States benefits from its strong relationship with Israel, including in the area of emergency medicine. “We’ve already learned a tremendous amount from Israel. In fact, in Afghanistan and in Iraq we’ve had fewer fatalities from wounds than in any conflict we’ve been in and its in no small part because of what Israel has learned about treating trauma and treating it immediately.”
Senator Franken’s exposure to various aspects of Israel’s military while visiting the country did lead him to start thinking creatively about our own.
He expressed concern about the fact that in the United States, our men and women serving in the military must sometimes serve multiple tours of duty. He noted, ”One of the very interesting differences between Israel and the United States is that in Israel, everyone, except the Haredi [ultra religious], go into the military.” That system is so different from the United States’s all-volunteer army which, Senator Franken expressed the concern, can become an “isolated group … isolated from the rest of the public.” Because the United States’s military is ”not as much part of the fabric of the entire society,” as Israel’s military is, that may make it “harder for our men and women” to serve.
Visting Israel, and learning about their military system made Senator Franken think seriously about the possibility of having “some kind of universal service” in the United States. ”Not necessarily military, but some kind of universal service. Because I think it unites the country. There’s something we’re missing I think because we don’t have that experience.”
Although he said he did not spend much time discussing the danger of a nuclear Iran with Benjamin Netanyahu, he did tell the Israeli Prime Minister that he understood the “existential” nature of the situation. ”You can’t be in Israel without understanding that.” Senator Franken also told me that with respect to the crisis with respect to Iran, he was seeing a real togetherness among his colleagues and the administration in their concern about the many dangers of Iran having a nuclear weapon. “This seems to be something that everyone’s united on. Not necessarily in how to do it. But this is a real, real existential threat.”
“There is this unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States and we cannot let Iran have a nuclear weapon. We cannot let them because that is unacceptable. This is, there’s a certain point at which you cannot risk them having that capability to annihilate Israel, which is something [Iran] has said they want to do.”
Despite the dangers that face Israel, and, as Senator Franken said, the “tsorus,” or trouble in Yiddish, “that is the basis of Israel,” he was taken with the fact that “there is this incredible amount of joy and this vitality that is there.”