Despite the recent rockiness in American-Israeli relations, particularly over the Iran nuclear deal, Sen. Cory Booker, just back from a Senate Democratic mission to Israel and other countries, said he is convinced the bond remains strong. New Jersey’s junior senator was one of eight legislators on the Jan. 3-9 trip led by New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand.
But, said Booker, the U.S. has to do more to ensure Israel’s safety. While Israeli officials accept the nuclear pact as a “done deal,” he said, he emphasized that stringent oversight was needed.
“I left Israel with a sense of gratitude from Israelis for the work going on in the region between our two countries and respect for Israel’s own capabilities, and a deep commitment to use my capabilities every day to take aggressive responses to any threats Israel has, particularly from Iran,” Booker told NJJN in a Jan. 15 phone interview.
The trip included meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, and leaders of other allied nations to discuss a broad range of regional security issues. These included threats from such groups as the Islamic State (ISIS), Hamas, and Hezbollah.
Booker said of particular concern for him was Israel’s security in light of the deal, which he voted to approve, to halt Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. The deal was opposed by Netanyahu and many Israeli leaders.
Before journeying to Israel, the group met with officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which is overseeing implementation of the multinational pact, to discuss its monitoring procedures and ensure Iran is held accountable.
“I was happy to hear they knew they couldn’t trust the Iranian regime,” said Booker, who called Iran “a dangerous actor that has proven to be a state sponsor of terrorism. The IAEA, he added, “were very detailed about their team and concerns and view of the future. They haven’t detected any violations so far, which I was happy to hear, because we know Iran will try and push the boundaries.”
On Jan. 16, the United States and European nations lifted oil and financial sanctions against Iran, releasing about $100 billion of its assets after international inspectors concluded that the country had followed through on promises to dismantle large sections of its nuclear program.
“At this point we’re seeing the Iranians comply with removing the immediate nuclear threat,” said Booker. “They’ve shipped out many of their nuclear materials as part of this agreement. They have taken centrifuges offline. These are good early signs, but at the same time we know Iran has traditionally not been a reliable or trustworthy regime.
“My colleagues and I encouraged these folks not to give an inch in their rigors of inspection and oversight. I left feeling good they were determined to do the job we wanted them to do.”
One reason the senators went to Israel “was to talk about what we can do to undermine Iran’s destabilizing activities and other terrorism,” said Booker, who called on the Obama administration to sanction Iran if it continues to support terrorist organizations.
Among the issues the group discussed during the visit were ways the United States and Israel could work together to bolster Israeli security, including by cutting the flow of dollars to countries supporting terrorism and the joint development of technology to detect underground terror tunnel networks.
Booker said Netanyahu is especially concerned about cutting funding of terrorism and noted that the U.S. Treasury has a “very sophisticated team” working with international organizations to put a halt to it.
Other senators on the trip were Chris Coons (Del.); Heidi Heitkamp (ND); Tim Kaine (Va.); Tammy Baldwin (Wis.); Mazie Hirono (Hawaii); and Gary Peters (Mich.). The group also met in Turkey with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to discuss the threat from ISIS and other terrorist groups and the Syrian refugee crisis. They met with government officials in Saudi Arabia, including women appointed to Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, to discuss counter-terrorism efforts and U.S.-Saudi relations.
In a prepared statement, Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said of the trip, “We heard from Israel’s leaders about the constant threat of terrorism they face, and we reaffirmed to them our commitment to supporting and protecting our closest ally and the only democracy in the Middle East.”